April 21, 2015


by Helen Burke

Review by Bill Kirton

I’ve written before about the apparent artlessness of Helen Burke’s poetry. The need for that qualifier ‘apparent’ is especially evident with regard to this particular collection. She eventually made it to the USA, a country her father (whose happy spirit lurks in so many of her poems), longed to have visited, and she seemed to see things there through the eyes of a child on a first visit to Disneyland. That’s not meant to belittle the place or the poetry in any way – on the contrary, the joy, the surprise, the delight she experiences on encountering some of the people, seeing some of the sights, being part of the throb and bustle of Chicago and New York is fresh, uplifting, life-affirming.

Her advice to the wannabe visitor is ‘Pack nothing except the hopes and dreams you stand up in’. She’s in awe of some huge cakes in a shop that ‘loll about the counter like disgruntled teenagers’ and could ‘double as a country’. When a waitress takes a photograph of her and says she isn’t smiling enough, it’s because the size of the hot dog she’s been served has ‘overwhelmed’ her.  ‘It should,’ she says, ‘be on a leash’.

Like her priceless evocations of specific characters – the doorman outside the hotel where John Lennon was shot, Joleen the room cleaner, the man on Wickenden Street, the customers in his record shop, and many others – her reactions to places and events capture the essence of archetypal America – at least, as viewed through British eyes. The iconic Empire State Building is the setting for a very funny incident involving an elevator, a policeman (or woman) and a cider doughnut. And through her expressions of surprise, joy, wonder at these experiences, through the wide-eyed pleasure of the child creeps the wisdom of the poet, the intuition that there are forces at work which elude easy typification. America keeps surprising her, she loves using its terminology, its vernacular, but she’s aware that these are surfaces under which there are depths.

Nowhere is this more apparent than In Emily Dickinson’s Garden. Burke is a long-time admirer of the American poet. Visiting her house and garden brings a childlike delight, but one which is expressed in terms of a far from childlike aesthetic. She imagines that Emily is the white butterfly which lands on her arm, or a ‘cheeky raccoon’, and she and Emily:

‘sit awhile amidst the honeycomb of air,
Quiet as bees and impossible as mermaids. Our sea spun hands
And the honey of our song is all around.’

That’s not what I call artlessness.

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