Tuesday, March 17, 2009
by Clint Burnham
The trajectory of thought in Canadian poet Clint Burnham’s 2007 collection, “Rental Van,” swerves and rolls with extraordinary dexterity. These poems speed past knotted verbal play, semiotic inquisition and cheeky, sometimes crude, colloquialisms, all while rushing towards the glorious jumble of a mind. Punctuation is for the most part absent, allowing for a greater syntactic solubility as promiscuous phrases suggest each other before merging into syncopated intimations of a totalized vernacular. Burnham asks, in “super proximity chairs med pep trank,” if “…poetry is conversation, where does the punctuation come from?” This resonates with my recent discussion of Chelsey Minnis’ “Zirconia” and the ‘negative weight’ of punctuation as a visible invisibility.
Punctuation has not been entirely eliminated from “Rental Van,” but Burnham occasionally leaves only the trace of punctuation. In these cases, he relies upon the gravitational pull of conversation to guide the reader. These “poems descend into email terseness. And punctuation turns out to be not just object not just just not, collapsed words the of @ made royal.” Here we see that even punctuation is not a normalizing agent – the period between “terseness” and “And” doesn’t properly indicate a cognitive stop. This period is more of a rhythmic marker –perhaps even an indicator of a breath space. After all, in conventional writing, punctuation often follows meaning rather than breath. Burnham’s poetry, though, facilitates a reassessment of language’s foregone conclusions.
Look at the incisive rhythm of Burnham’s work, as the poems follow sound and word-sense, allowing for logical connections to form in a more open solubility. Here is a favorite passage of mine, from “Chicken Fallujah,” where we begin during the “…early evening/ the clatter of dishes/ beeps of microwave buttons/ a story and a yard away/ mommy scissors/ mommy stickers/ mommy sees hers/ the horror or the joy are too intense to distance from write about…” What movement! The first few lines of the excerpted stanza establish a prosaic contemporary setting with its unsentimental perspective. Then, Burnham moves into one of his wonderful associative riffs, as sound provides lubrication for syntactic acrobatics. The noun “scissors” transforms into the noun “stickers,” before making the final revelatory leap to a verb: “sees hers.” The train of thought undergoes a progressive activation, further amplified by Burnham’s refusal to offer smoothness within syntax – that is, he writes “sees hers” instead of “sees her.” The doubling of the s furthers the association with the z in “seizures,” while also refusing the line’s sublimination into conventional sense.
Neither does Burnham allow lineation to coddle or restrict the poems. Look at how nimbly he alternates between long Whitman-esque lines, longer prose passages and shorter enjambments in “Chicken Fallujah.” Elsewhere, as in “di da di” and “British props” he writes a mostly unpunctuated prose poem that depends upon promiscuous linkages to provide form and momentum.
“British props” is composed of short clusters of prose linked by connective associations that constantly reorient the poem’s direction. “name the north van rcmp john school” to “work village: nazi violence: homosexual government: greed greed: homosexual water...” The reader’s attempt to provide a logical linearity between the two stanzas is initially thwarted, until a connection is suggested between “school” and “work.” This is followed by another stanza: “reflects commodities mountain reflect skyline everyone’s a critic ballcap poverty is a beautiful gift hard emails muck-a-mock…” The connective tissue between this stanza and its antecedent is even more impressive as it manages to subtly suggest imagery as well. “Water” bleeds into “reflects” quite nicely, before we see the word “reflects” mirrored further on in the passage in “reflect.” Burnham’s deft navigation of a word’s turn makes it so that the reader is never lost amidst the density and dissonance of the text.
“Rental Van’s” prose poems, frontloaded within the collection’s first thirty or so pages, provide some of the book’s more distinctive pleasures, yet it is Burnham’s formal diversity that is truly illuminating. Of particular note are the pieces that organize their stanzas in three columns along the page, including “2. Now where I was was where was I,” “Ocular to Ocular” and “98Rushkin.” For the latter two, a relatively cogent poem materializes as the eye follows vertically down each column, before moving right horizontally. Reading in this fashion rewards the reader with such fantastic passages as “scribble/ something/ in the/ middle/ of the book/ about/ lit crit/ as/ allegory/ of/ avoidance…” That certainly makes sense, but the tripling of the columns along the passage invites a second manner of reading, which would be to follow horizontally, making special logistic leaps across the two wide gaps therefore surfacing in each line.
Let’s look at the same passage read from a horizontal trajectory as opposed to a vertical one: “read in/ now phone/ lit crit/ the G-U-/ calls’re/ as/ Supertramp’s/ problematical/ allegory/ band of the/ dad’s voicemail’s/ of/ century what/ full if you/ avoidance…” Now, this reading does not possess as logical a through-line or anchor as the previous one, yet it does without a doubt elicit its share of surprise and excitement. There is a freedom gained in reading against sense within a text. While the first reading is arguably more “correct,” it is with the second one that we assert a creative authority through the text. The poem has exponentialized into a series that shift according to perspective. By tripling the columns, Burnham suggests a greater range of possibility, one moving beyond sense and towards the activation of the reader directional potential. It is important, I would argue, to not allow sense or presumed intent to exert a tyrannical insistence over a text. For example, look at a line further on in the poem generated through a horizontal reading: “…sort of guy/ anything/ dancing…” There is a wonderful echo occurring between “guy” and “anything,” as the u of “guy” is flipped to become an n in “anything.” Then we have “anything”s “-ing” ending transformed from the unity of the root word “thing” into the gerund “-ing” of “dancing,” which is again a movement towards activation. A salient point of Burnham’s poetry is its progressively active nature - words move, that is, dance.
The very first poem in “Rental Van,” the short “2. Now where I was was where was I” is an excellent introduction to the book, as it forecasts the roving directional promiscuity which makes this collection so inspiring. The poem is scrambled, with each phrase preceded by a number indicating a logical order. One may choose to read the poem as a linear entity, or they may leapfrog from phrase to phrase, following the numbers sequentially. There is a soft flow between successive statements – look at how the last word in the first part ends with the word “now,” which nicely dovetails into the repetition of said word in the poem’s title.
A further word on the poem’s title. By placing the second section of the poem in the most visible position on the page, the reader’s eye is of course initially drawn to it, thwarting their desire to maintain a truly sequential, linear movement through the text. Also, the very presumed linear primacy is itself questioned. A sequential passage rewards the reader with a trace of cogency and syntactic echoing, yet Burnham suggests the possibility of more diffuse configurations. As a final word on this particular poem, Burnham also establishes a wonderful visual slope to the three columns. While the first column also reaches to the bottom of the page, the columns that follow are each successively shorter. If we follow the numbered sequence of the poem, our eyes dart upward from “9.as” in the second column to “10.if” That the final two passages combine to form a colloquial trope further increases its speed, as we end the poem on a syntactic ambiguity.
Of course, Clint Burnham manages to pull all this off on account of his nuanced attention to language. He follows the incremental sense of the word, including its reality as sound and object in addition to meaning. The succinct snapshots of “Mp haiku” explode with a direct immediacy of word reminiscent of George Oppen. “Obligatory” dismantles a word while also centralizing its parts: “letter/ ismilitary/ ntelli/ vision.” The phrase “military intelligence” is never vocalized, yet exists as a clear ghost within the intimation of words. The poem fittingly boils down to a final evocation of “vision.” It is worth noting that “Obligatory” is the last section of “Mp haiku,” most of whose segments portrayed a more private or even domestic landscape, such as “Untitled:” “styrofoam bowl/ black bean soup/ tarmac.” Yet an ominous politicization is extant throughout “Mp haiku,” as the short “Snow” manages to elicit a true dread: “armour truck/ in front of the bingo hall/ a dog shits/ on the crosswalk.” These are, ultimately, political poems – yet they are never polemical or dogmatic. The political is presented as a component of language and of thought – Burnham allows the political to interact, instead of forcing itself as incontrovertible in its position. As the poetry itself opens itself up to a multiplicity of directional possibilities, so too does it instigate a greater political openness, allowing an assertive readership instead of a privileged authorial positioning.
How about that.