Review by Marcus Smith
THE FIRST INHABITANTS OF ARCADIA
by Christopher Bursk
University of Arkansas Press, 2006
201 Ozark Ave. , Fayetteville, AK 72701
ISBN-10: 1-5572-813-5. 1
24 pp., $16, paper
Christopher Bursk's The First Inhabitants of Arcadia is a charming declaration of love for the English language--for words, letters (both their shapes and sounds), for prefixes, suffixes, parts of speech,
punctuation. And with just enough pathos, current event and political dimension this collection, without really trying, serves as a humanistic counterpart to all the intellectual movements that ultimately seem hostile to, or at least fundamentally frustrated by, language. As a result, in an age when books and scholar-poets are rarely considered charming, it is a pleasure to read a poet who takes such pleasure in his medium. Bursk's work, like Debussy's tone-poem, reflects the composer's belief: "There is
no theory, only pleasure."
This is how it should be--for the poet, for the reader, for anyone and everyone involved in art, life or both. Language is what makes us human, language makes us individuals, and language is our compensation for pain and mortality. Bursk knows all this thoroughly, organizing First Inhabitants as an autobiography of the word.
He writes in his opening poem, "Learning to Read":
At seven I hovered over words
on cereal boxes, candy wrappers,
my grandmother's romance novels, my brother's
adventure books. They all tasted
of fat off the roast, dollop
of butter, heel of bread, smear of gooseberry jam,
sweet, brown rot
of a banana, still-soft gum with a little peppermint
hidden in it. I was that hungry
and finishes the book with a salute to his dying hero, the human dictionary Dr. Johnson, for whom, he speculates, words are meant, as they are for himself:
not to heal but make tolerable;
not lighten the load, but enable one
to take up its heavy weight; not restore sight,
but help one bear not song.
In between Bursk frequently moves between childhood naivete and the playfulness and rebellion of adolescence to a deeper portrait of the human condition with language as its metaphor. Often personifying letters in the youthful poems ("I invented / theories about the letters / of the alphabet / and the lives they led"), he holds a conversation with language as if he were talking to himself or a close friend ("language, not knowing what else to do but talk to itself"). Words and letters become companions and confidants in his loneliness ("I was included in the ribald/secret life of vowels and consonants"). A word is an entity he must literally feel in his mouth through repetition ("How lovely it feels/to tuck the tongue/ against the teeth"), a letter a phenomenon he must write "over and over, just to feel it..." Or, in one of his many poems celebrating a single letter such as "F," he practices an alliterative scale ("Fauntleroy, flaunting its frills, its French cuffs, its fluency/in foreign languages...") before figuring out with the help of Williamseque triads in "Letter l as in Reliable, Indomitable, Chivalrous"
… What pleasure there is
in working certain words
He also recognizes there are
… Words only too willing
the alphabet’s great aspirations
("At an Early Age a Boy Discovers the Perils of Double o")
and in the same poem asks,
there were nothing loopy
in the language, no
va-va-voom? No magic
Such verbal jubilance, he realizes, is the enemy of literalism, where words are "good little soldiers" who are "told" what "they must do" in the name of "Usefulness" (“Vocabulary Test”). In contrast, "Ode to J " concludes: "…The brain / has precious few pleasures and j, / jocund, jaunty / j is one of them.” And the real power of language is realized again in "Letter l..." with its originating sense of language letting there be life ("That's not just the Lord / talking. / That's language..."). Speaking of the Bible, in the wonderful "Hearing the Word For the First Time," Bursk returns us to the garden, to the dark side of knowledge that language supplies. The word is "nigger." Bursk's high school persona is tempted to use it. The word is "like being given a rock and told not to / throw it..." The speaker recognizes the irony of evil and its talk: "Why were words invented / if we weren't supposed to / say them...?" But the ability to analyze the word in such a human, metaphorical way--
The n without scruples
kicking the legs out from under a kid,
the I caught up
in what it had no intention of doing:
ganging up with the twins,
double g, those thugs up to no good
--gives the speaker true empathy, in this case for a black student at his school: "Hearing the word hurled at him,/how does a boy ever trust language / again…?"
This direct parallel between language and morality intensifies in the second half of the book. From the comic "The Burden of Being the First Letter in the Alphabet," in which the alphabet is pictured as going on strike because of its "arduous labor" to the tragic "True Readings," wherein A.E. Houseman's homosexual trysts are grimly characterized by language ("...the vulgar Latin / of a boy's flesh and succumbing to the fate / of the language that he so revered / its doomed polysyllabics. Dissolution. Disintegrations. / Momentous and grand. Rome toppling."), Bursk senses the meaning or lack thereof language can supply or deny. And so in "Biographical Phallacy" F.O. Mathiessen's suicide parallels the title as a supposed "crime invented… / by English teachers," while the poignant "The Importance of Punctuation," also regarding a suicide, this time the poet's own father, lovingly dwells on the commas in the farewell note, commenting that what his father "loved about language" was that "everything counted."
Given such tragic stories, we are, Bursk implies, prisoners of language. He ruminates, "...what good is language if it can't help you / figure out the very things / you most want to...?" in "No Extenuating Circumstances," a poem taken from Bursk's experience in teaching in prisons. "What If You Could Be Any Letter?," another prison poem, which supplies the book's title's, first matches letters and inmates ("...Jason as s, / as he says, in sly, slick, stealthy"), then invokes memories of a childhood spaceship game that combines escapism with Bursk's linguistic affirmation:
just this intrepid crew (the whole alphabet)
the first inhabitants of Arcadia,
now homesick, curious exiles from Eden,
navigating their valiant path through the universe,
always looking back
over their shoulders at Paradise.
The final section of Bursk's book begins with an epigram from Johnson's preface to his dictionary: "...words are but the signs of ideas: I wish, however, that the instrument might be less apt to decay, and that signs might be permanent, like the things which they denote." Johnson, the first semantic philosopher it turns out (and the only one needed?), literally wrote the book on language's quixotic nature. Ultimately, it is his heroic struggle that Bursk honors in First Inhabitants. In a poem like "Who Hears Talk Now of Boudoir" he celebrates old-fashioned words, while his fondness for pre-capitalist metaphors for language in "Servants" and elsewhere underscores Bursk's instinct that we don’t need to be told by jargon-laden theorists how words have always been evanescent, mutable and inadequate. After all, the last poem in this book laments "What’s Missing in the Dictionary."
Marcus Smith’s work has appeared in anthologies and journals in the US, England, Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Austria and Japan, including Atlanta Review’s 10th Anniversary Anthology, Southern Poetry Review, Greensboro Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, The Shop, Confrontation and Acumen. Born in England, he lives with his family in the United States, where he reviews for Pleiades, Rattle and other journals and is a contributing editor to Hunger Mountain. A graduate of Williams College with a MA in Literature from the University of Pennsylvania, he earned his MFA at Vermont College as a Merit Fellow.