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Morsels for a Feast

Edward Clarke

The Chance of Home, by Mark S Burrows, Paracelete Press, 112 pp, $19, ISBN: 978-1612616476

In The Chance of Home, Mark S Burrows obeys a divine injunction: “idly” he considers the lilies of the field, or those that bloom “promiscuously along the road”. His poems appreciate “how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin”, and yet “even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Matthew 6:28-9).

The poet’s question is:

Will you dare to turn and step aside
from the march toward importance,
to care enough to save your life, at least
a little, and brush the hems of glory as
they come close and pass you by?

Such a sight, like Wordsworth’s wet black rock “smitten” from its “lurking-place” by the declining sun into the magical “lustre” of a “patch of sparkling light” that seemed “To have some meaning which I could not find”, is, in RS Thomas’ words, “a brightness / that seemed as transitory as your youth / once, but is the eternity that awaits you”.

The first time I read this collection through I was also making my way through the Complete Poems of Edward Thomas and Henry Vaughan’s Silex Scintillans, and I was worrying about poetic form. Sometimes I have a feeling more recent poets use too readily Thomas’s rapid apprentice work as a bridge between older forms of poetry and their freer verse, of which I find myself often suspicious. My engagement with Burrows’s poems, which inhabit looser forms than those of Vaughan, assures me that it is possible to write according to what WB Yeats called “the dance music of the ages” without end rhymes and strict attention always to iambic pentameters. Like Wallace Stevens, Burrows has an inner ear so refined by being attuned to each poem in its making, as it lures him into it, to write without such exoteric restrictions.

The second time I read this collection I became more conscious of the repetitions of words, images and certain phrases – like “lure”, “lilies”, “geese”, “task”, variations of the question “who can ever say?” – and I found myself becoming properly lured into its organic whole. In the process I found myself becoming happier, more upright and at ease, kinder even, and certainly more attentive to life outside of the book, once I had put it down.

I would say that this is because Burrows, like Heidegger, finds value in the self-secluding presence of the language of the sense, which is where we must dwell creatively. As William McNeill has put it:

In bringing the essence of the divine, the work of art plays an ethical role, in the originary sense of ethos (the place where he stays and where he must dwell, the site of his habitation in the world): in the presence of the god, human beings are raised beyond themselves toward something greater, something excessive, something that prevails over them. Thus raised beyond themselves toward the splendour of the divine, humans themselves acquire an uprightness, a stance, a dignity and nobility of their own, in response to the work’s divine presencing.

Over and over again, in individual lines and in the poems they form, in the submerged smaller sequences these poems make, in their very proximity to each other within this ever so carefully organised collection, I found myself raised beyond myself to notice what Wordsworth calls “splendour in the grass” and “glory in the flower” in response to this work’s “divine presencing”.

Although the speaker of “The Dark Way Home” understands, almost paradoxically, that

Words are not much to speak about when all
is said and done, bits of sound shaped by teeth
and tongue and carried by breath and habit, in
stray feelings and the many postures of the mind.

There is also the apprehension that “Their treasures often hide in plain sight” and that they lure “us to wander out // past the dark cottages of common sense”. The reader of this poem is also encouraged to “dare / to reach for them as you do for lights that mark // the long way home”. In this poem the parable of the sower has fallen into good ground and the fire of poetic inspiration makes it “fill the skies”. Happily I listen for the words of the poem

in the stillnesses until they become like old sequoia
seeds that have lain for centuries, waiting for fire
to break them open to release a tender rise of
greening shoots which reach out to fill the skies
with the magnificence of a great towering tree.

A great American tree looms magnificently out of tradition, like divine revelation in time. But Burrows himself is obeying Rilke’s injunction: “raise with measured gaze a single black tree / and place it before the skies, slender and alone”. In this way he makes the world, understanding with William Blake, I imagine, that “Praise is the practice of Art”: “Art is the Tree of Life.”

Again we find ourselves gathered by poems,
by language shaped in the wide and spacious
silences beyond our naming, a handful of words
thrown onto the canvas of the old certainties—
ambitions of war and other efficiencies of state,
and the politics of greed that drive the brokers
of this world.

Burrows refuses “the seduction / of their strategies”, understanding with Blake that “Where any view of Money exists, Art cannot be carried on, but War only”. The miracle of this collection is that out of a few “crumbs” – not so much as five loaves and too fishes, but the greening blade of a crocus, a gnarly old olive tree, the chatter of finch, the clouds that drift aimlessly by – Mark Burrows has gathered, like a busker in the subway or Christ in a desert place, “enough to make a feast” and given us, “setting out on paths / whose ends we cannot see”, “the chance of home”.

1/5/2018

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