Stephen Burt, Advice from the Lights, Graywolf, 2017
Reviewed by Jos Charles
One of the great pleasures for me as a reader of poetry is charting a poem's address: who the speaker addresses, who the speaker is or could include, and how. Some poems, for instance, may assume a static speaker coextensive with the author (the "poetry" of the poem being how the reader relates to the speaker within the context that is the poem), while others may assume hyperbolic, extension of, fictional, or multiple speakers (the "poetry" of the poem being the reader's discovery of the "I" or what happens in the journey to try to identify, figure out, or grapple with it). There is precedent for both in English poetics for as long as the language has been, ranging from narrative elegies to riddles to epics to fictional or non-fictional monologues. The history of this development is long, involving stances being taken, politicized, and schools forming along or incorporating these lines. With confessionalism and the New York School as extremes of one side, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetics and, later, conceptualism on the other, various camps grew to have perceived similar aesthetics enough for arguments to ensue over differing relations of their use of the "I" to the poem.
This is all quite "natural" given circumstance—a reader, unsurprisingly, looking for relevance to themself as someone purchasing and/or committing time to a work, asks, "what's this to (or not to) me?" With identity, trauma, or witness poetics—fraught genres, certainly, almost wholly prescribed based on assumptions surrounding the identity of the author—the location of the reader is expected to be an observer: the "poetry" exists in being "in another's shoes," typically the speaker, either as the site of the content or a valuable observer of some site of content. This poetic crisis has resulted in something that resembles the larger capitalist crisis of profiting off the very individual trauma it composes: a kind of social justice commodity fetishism. Various people have, in so many words, rejected the use of a transparent "I" as in-itself troublesome. This is not to fault those representing their own narratives, trauma, and so on, nor is it a comment on the artistic quality or usefulness of anyone's work. Rather, this is to sketch, quickly and coarsely, the stakes at play.
So we get to Advice from the Lights by Stephanie Burt (published as Stephen Burt, Graywolf Press, 2017)—a work whose "I's" sprawl a number of experimentations, familiarities, and scandals. Burt's poems appear with references similar to other identity, trauma, or witness poetics, while also engaging in forms of address often considered extrinsic to these forms. Burt's "I" is much more mobile though, jumping from grand summation to an object-oriented intimacy. What this "I" can sustain, its flexibility, seems a vital use of poetry when living in a world where, "[e]verybody wants a piece of me." In such pronouncements, we identify with the everyone, while unsure of the identity, stability, or what precisely the "me" contains.
Throughout Burt presents both a series of seemingly autobiographical poems alongside others whose "I" is voiced by various objects such as kites, bugs, flora. There is precedent here in other poetic experimenters of the "I"—Coleridge, Stein, Ai. Advice from the Lights strikes me in this respect as most similar to Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience though; a childlike speaker ("be / a child, or be like a child" or "what use is the adult world") contending with the experience of those (other)worldly objects that reveal and constitute the juvenile ("The people who pick me up can never be / the same as the ones who put me down"). Of course, this is not to sell innocence, juvenilia, or the "I," short. Rather, if there is an "I" "that's wholly my own / then it isn't mine," but out there, precisely in that other world of experience, already part of the others, their structures and creatures.
Inevitably, however, the "I" can only emerge as estranged from or by the objects the assumed "I" is familiar with. The materials Burt decontextualizes for us in this way are gardens, zoos, parenting, gender, the academy. For some, I imagine, these materials may already be sufficiently strange. Burt employs a multitude of other tactics and forms though to construct the world of Advice from the Lights. Among the most surprising and pleasant are the stark moments of sincerity which emerge out of the—much depended upon—opacity of others. Take, for instance, the aching simplicity of "I learned to use stamps. They stuck to my thumb / without any glue. I didn't have any permission." Such a line requires much, much work, preparation, and establishment of trust before a poem and a reader of that poem can bare it. Burt manages this kind of reservation well. It is only through these broader gestures of rotating speakers, their artificiality, we can get to the work's powerful vulnerabilities: "When everything is artificial, everything / is equally sincere."
Burt's carouselling speakers provide the possibility of surprising formal interventions as well. Just as it's shocking to find some of Burt's most gently majestic moments spoken by say a roly-poly bug, so too it is shocking to find formal gestures that identity-based poetics can leave behind. Not only does Burt write a number of poems after Callimachus, but eases in and out of metre, classical forms, and rhyme. By being at the crossroads of linguistic density (i.e., Hoa Nguyen, Harryette Mullen, Rae Armantrout) and sincerity (i.e., Kaveh Akbar, Sam Sax, joshua jennifer espinoza), Burt creates a playful grace distinct from either: "I live midair / I greet you from there."
Our current crises—political, affectual, personal—are, while not exclusively, also crises of language and how to address others and ourselves. This means we always are writing or speaking, being written or spoken to, within some, often of our own making, wreckage. Burt presents sketches of objects impacted by such crises, where the "I" is a crumpled object alongside others. In Advice from the Lights though, there is much comfort to be had in this—if an "I" can emerge as self-appointed sovereign over a world of "inferior" objects, it can recede into that world quietly, simply. There one can begin to begin the work, new and again, of building up: "Almost always better to build than to wreck. // You can build in a wreck."