?And now, a book review of ƒ?oeParallel Play,ƒ?? a collection of poems by Stephen Burt

By Jack Phinney

Macalester English Professor Stephen Burtƒ?TMs name is often spoke with a hushed reverence among the literati of the upper Midwest. But what does that mean to you, Mister Econ Major? Or you, with the Xbox controller permanently bonded to your hand? What about you, with those high-topped sneakers, no doubt on your way to ƒ?oeshoot some hoopsƒ??? Well, maybe itƒ?TMs a name youƒ?TMve all but ignored up until this point, but watch outƒ?”Stephen Burt will write a poem about something you love, and youƒ?TMll read it, and itƒ?TMll blow your mind, and youƒ?TMll be forced to buy his new book, ƒ?oeParallel Play,ƒ?? last month from St. Paulƒ?TMs own Gray Wolf Press. In this, his second collection of poems, Burt writes about an astonishing range of topics. From Big City living to smaller, Residential City living, from Drag Shows to the WNBA, from the comic-book heroƒ?TMs point of view to the house catƒ?TMs, from personal relationships to national politics, ƒ?oeParallel Playƒ?? touches on just about everything you can see on basic cable, and lots more besides.

Burt approaches his wide range of interests with a corresponding range of emotional depth. ƒ?oeLike a Wreckƒ?? begins, ƒ?oeFlaunting your useless knowledge has failed you again, / Though it was all they had taught you,ƒ?? and doesnƒ?TMt let up. But the very next page, after making us feel like a wreck, Steve throws us into a painting of a young woman on a lazy September day, thinking ƒ?oeThe trouble is, when youƒ?TMre not anything / You think you could be all kinds of things / And then you choose.ƒ?? Two pages after that, we are inside the mind of comic-book heroine in ƒ?oeSelf-Portrait as Kitty Pryde.ƒ?? Then, itƒ?TMs across the world with ƒ?oeMoscow for Teens.ƒ?? To appreciate such a variety of disparate subjects is admirable in itself. To find a poem within each, thatƒ?TMs just plain special, and worthy of our attention.

Furthermore, the majority of this book is not ƒ?simpleƒ?TM in any way. The notes at the end help explain a few things here and there, but a lot of these poems may have you running for the nearest Google access. I am thinking of the notable, ƒ?oeHelp With Your Plant Questions,ƒ?? where we are given that ƒ?oeJanelƒ?? is another womenƒ?TMs basketball reference, but weƒ?TMre on our own for things like cycad and bromeliad (and if you already knew what those are, good for youƒ?”those years of being shut up in Olin-Rice havenƒ?TMt gone to waste). Not that I am complaining. On the contrary, this makes for interesting poetry. If, in the process of finding meaning in one of these poems, I learn way more about botany than I ever used to, then Hot Damn! Two birds with one stone. Knowledge is power, and ƒ?oeParallel Playƒ?? brings the power within reach ƒ?” youƒ?TMve just got to stretch a bit.

Throughout this book we see a number of recurring images ƒ?” art and artists, basketball, grassroots politics ƒ?” and each time we think we see something familiar, weƒ?TMre treated to a different side. This is especially evident in the poems about/taking place in New York City. Now, for the record: I hate New York. I grew up way upstate and I am convinced that NYC is a dark, vampiric entity leeching tax dollars from the hard-working men and women of Niagara Falls, Syracuse, Buffalo, etc. Nothing that gaudy can possibly support itself ƒ?” just look at the Royal French Court in the 1780ƒ?TMs. That said, I like New York when Steve Burt writes about it, particularly in ƒ?oeBernice Abbottƒ?TMs New York,ƒ?? in which he paints a sparse but moving picture of a city in a bygone era, bracing for the invasion of the automobile and the possible collapse of an already fragile social order.

ƒ?oeParallel Playƒ?? needs a much longer review to do it justice. This is a fascinating, ambitious book that takes very un-poetic things and says ƒ?oeYou! Be a poem!ƒ?? while at the same time taking traditionally poetic things and saying ƒ?oeYou! Prove your relevance to us in this modern age!ƒ?? It will inform, soothe, sting and thoroughly baffle you. Read it, or risk being boring and inarticulate for the rest of your life.