Review by Trina L. Drotar
THE PARIS POEMS
by Suzanne Burns
303 Bedford Avenue
Buffalo, NY 14216 USA
2010, 84 pp., $16.00
Suzanne Burns’ The Paris Poems is a tour of Paris via popular culture. Jim Morrison reappears throughout the collection while Louis Vuitton and Quasimodo figure prominently in others. Burns addresses Coco Chanel, and in “Walking with Victor Hugo,” compares her love for this man to the Americans’ belief that they love Mary Shelley. This collection, however, is not about popular culture or necessarily about Paris, but these poems could not have been written without incorporating both because they are the vehicles Burns uses to comment on how we travel at times, how we love at others, and how we view the world. This collection is thoroughly enjoyable at every turn, and I have had the pleasure of rereading several poems. Burns blends history with contemporary society and tells stories that ask us to think.
I have a fascination with Paris, and I picked this book up because of the title and because of the cover, which is primarily shades along the gray scale with a simple pink stripe near the bottom quarter of the cover where the title and author’s name appear. The focus of the cover for me is the elongated shadow of the person walking across the stone street. It is not clear to me whether the walker is male or female, and it doesn’t matter to me. It intrigued me enough to open the book, and I was certainly not disappointed. The cover, especially the shadow figure, acted as a guide at times.
The collection begins, appropriately, with “Arrival,” which advises travelers to “always arrive in Paris / on a Sunday afternoon / the skeleton of this fastened city / will become your bones.” Images and lines like these are what bring the greatest joy as I move through the book. She moves here from light lines that seem cheery and like something a guide might suggest to the third and fourth lines which become heavier, primarily through her use of sound and rhythm. By arriving on a Sunday, the traveler can perhaps view the city without the paintings, the souvenirs, and without the window dressing. “It’s just you and these abandoned streets,” writes Burns.
Her word choice is always interesting. The streets in this poem are “abandoned,” and she writes to arrive “with an empty heart.” I want to know why the streets have been abandoned, and I’ve always heard that Paris is for lovers, is the city of love, so it seems odd that I should be asked to arrive empty-hearted, yet the narrator later says that “you will feel alone among millions / fall in love with things / you never allowed yourself to see.” These lines are wonderful, yet I am left with a sense of foreboding, that perhaps reveals itself in the next poem, “Paris Can Never Be Our Poem,” where Burns writes that “it’s an ailment to mythologize / this European host.” She places Paris not in France, the country, but in Europe, the continent. I find this fascinating.
One of my favorite poems is “Louis Vuitton,” and some of my favorite lines are “the Americans [long] to get lost in Paris” and “the Parisians [long] to ignore the Eiffel Tower” and “the Eiffel Tower [longs] to climb to the top of itself and see what all the fuss is about.” Here, Burns seems to say that too often we fail to see the beauty in our own city. When was the last time, she might be asking, we ventured into our own town to see its sights? After reading this poem, I am more inclined to visit the sights within my city that visitors always want to see so that I can discover what makes them special.
In this same poem, Burns shows how the monogrammed souvenirs are not without politics. She writes that “the Champs-Έlysées / can barely contain your name / while China hears the silent sound / of children trained not to scream / when they sew thread into finger bones / making knock-offs of you.” She addresses the American’s need for designer products and the cost, not in dollars, in human suffering.
Throughout this collection, the poems ask us to look, to see, and intimate that we often do not look beyond the surface. Although often complicated by the inclusion of more than one voice or topic, the poems were easy to follow because Burns used her lines as guides, and those lines often made me stop and look a little closer at what was being said.
Near the end of the collection, “Pilgrimage,” a poem dedicated to Jim Morrison, shows the narrator as an American and shows how s/he views different groups of people visiting Morrison’s grave:
There is an eternal wake around Jim’s grave
everyone got the invite
the assumed R.S.V.P.
the Italians are taking pictures and drinking wine
the Spaniards are smoking pot and crying
the dark man dressed like he stepped
from an avant-garde film
springs his switchblade
to slash the heart line of his palm
bleeding himself onto Jim’s final home.
the American are doing what we always do
looking at watches
lamenting the currency exchange
we always commemorate the one who got away.
The collection ends with “Faith,” and leaves us questioning where we place our faith when Burns writes “and how we store the idea of resurrection / in such a dark, brooking place / that seeking our fortune in a gypsy’s ring / might be enough salvation.” We look outside of ourselves, seeking something to believe in–Jim Morrison, a gypsy’s ring, monogrammed goods, Paris.
Suzanne Burns takes us through Paris, stopping by some of the most famous locations, and asks us to question our motives at each step. Her word choice is strong, which creates images that will remain long after finishing the book. Each poem is a story unto itself, and the collection is the poetic equivalent of a novel that should be read multiple times and shared.
Trina L. Drotar obtained her MA in English-Creative Writing from CSUS where she studied with Doug Rice, Joshua McKinney, Mary Mackey, and Peter Grandbois. She has worked as editor of Calaveras Station and currently works as editor of Poetry Now. Her reviews and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Rattle, Word Riot, Pirene’s Fountain, Ophidian I and II, and Medusa’s Kitchen. She is originally from San Francisco, CA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.