Book Review: Michael Burch—Our Very Own English Goethe

Every now and then a writer comes along who makes us confident enough to say: “This is a real poet!” Such is the case with Michael R. Burch who started writing in his teens, while still attending high school in Nashville, Tennessee. Burch is the kind of a poet whose collections should be easily accessible in any retail-chain book store or any mom and pop book shop, or any library for that matter.

Burch may rightly be called our very own English Goethe. He is able to craft poems of exquisite beauty and sublime sensuousness, while using only a few lines or stanzas, in many cases. When we read Burch’s poems—even many of his shorter strophic pieces, of which there are many—we encounter the kinds of beautiful sentiments and enticing ironies, which in the words of Robert Frost leave, “An immortal wound.”

The hope of this author is that an able review of Michael Burch’s poetry may give readers a sense of why Burch’s verses are the “the real deal.”

Considering the success of poets like Rupi Kaur, Ocean Vuong, John Ashbery and Maya Angelou, the fact that Burch’s poetry is not easily accessible simply by going to our nearest book store (as any great volume of poetry should be) speaks to the deep problem that has entrenched itself within the world of literature and twentieth century culture as a whole.

This author believes that Burch is a better poet than all the aforementioned popular poets combined. This is not hyperbole or rhetorical flourish aimed at deriding any of the aforementioned poets, but simply to emphasize the degree to which Burch is a master and seasoned poetic craftsman.

“Why then”, some may ask, “Is Burch not as popular as the other poets?” Several of these other writers are household names, so why isn’t Burch? This anomaly speaks more to the problem of contemporary culture than it does any short-coming on the part of Mr. Burch. We have become so enamored by the “new” and “contemporary” that most of us no longer stop to consider what the meaning of the latest “new” art is because something “newer” has already come along.

We harken back to the words of Archibald Macleish: “There is nothing worse for our trade than to be in style.” Yet, many artists are desperate to be “in style” today. Many artists have caved in to the fad of short-form communication, and the conventions of modern and contemporary verse.

Burch was never so desperate as to feel the need to copy or adhere to any said convention;  Burch wasn’t so desperate and never would be so desperate because he has the kind of talent which has anchored itself to the immutable principles of Beauty proper. As a result, he has dedicated his life to honing and honoring his craft and talents for the greater sake of art and poetry.

In fact, one of his earliest poems said so much in verse:

Poetry

Poetry, I found you
where at last they chained and bound you;
with devices all around you
to torture and confound you,
I found you—shivering, bare.

They had shorn your raven hair
and taken both your eyes
which, once cerulean as dawn’s skies,
had leapt with the sun to wild surmise
of what was waiting there.

Your back was bent with untold care
where savage brands had left cruel scars
as though the wounds of countless wars;
your bones were broken with the force
with which they’d lashed your flesh so fair.

You once were loveliest of all.
So many nights you held in thrall
a scrawny lad who heard your call
from where dawn’s milling showers fall—
pale meteors through sapphire air.

I learned the eagerness of youth
to temper for a lover’s touch;
I felt you, tremulant, reprove
each time I fumbled over-much.
Your merest word became my prayer.

You took me gently by the hand
and led my steps from child to man;
now I look back, remember when
you shone, and cannot understand
why now, tonight, you bear their brand.

I will take and cradle you in my arms,
remindful of the gentle charms
you showed me once, of yore;
and I will lead you from your cell tonight
back into that incandescent light

which flows out of the core
of a sun whose robes you wore.
And I will wash your feet with tears
for all those blissful years . . .
my love, whom I adore.

Burch has always preferred to let his poetry speak for itself. As seen from this poem written when he was only seventeen years old—an ardent teenager whose life had just begun—Burch already showed clear signs that he felt the need to serve poetry, and to make poetry his higher power, a power which Shelley described as “Seated on the throne of our own souls”:

The person in whom this power resides, may often, as far as regards many portions of their nature, have little apparent correspondence with that spirit of good of which they are the ministers. But even whilst they deny and abjure, they are yet compelled to serve, that power which is seated on the throne of their own soul.

In Defence of Poetry – Percy Bysshe Shelley

Poetry is natural to the human species. It is not some imagined artifice or mere rhetorical device; it is a natural expression of the innate quality of creativity, a longing to give an expression to the inexpressible dwelling within all human beings. Poetry is the wish and desire to explore and experience the profound quality of creativity “seated on the throne of our own souls”; it is the desire to come into intimate contact and relationship with this power, to befriend it, and in so doing, befriend our own higher nature as a creative species.

But Burch does not need more than two or three stanzas to make contact with his higher poetic powers. Take the simple yet maddeningly beautiful example of his “Insurrection”—a poem which closes with a line that is arguably one of those timeless lines that stay with us for the rest of our lives:

Insurrection

She has become as the night—listening
for rumors of dawn—while the dew, glistening,
reminds me of her, and the wind, whistling,
lashes my cheeks with its soft chastening.

She has become as the lights—flickering
in the distance—till memories old and troubling
rise up again and demand remembering ...
like peasants rebelling against a mad king.

There is much richness and nuance in these few lines of poetry; so much has been said about human nature and relationships with a seemingly simple classic metaphor—so much so that we do not have the time to elaborate all its meanings here. But we believe readers can retain this image and muse over its implications, if they so choose, with the result that perhaps their thoughts may be forever like “Peasants rebelling against a mad king.”

Take the heartfelt example of Burch’s four-stanza poem, “Sunset,” which he dedicated to his grandfather.

Sunset

Between the prophesies of morning
and twilight’s revelations of wonder,
the sky is ripped asunder.

The moon lurks in the clouds,
waiting, as if to plunder
the dusk of its lilac iridescence,

and in the bright-tentacled sunset
we imagine a presence
full of the fury of lost innocence.

What we find within strange whorls of drifting flame,
brief patterns mauling winds deform and maim,
we recognize at once, but cannot name.

What passion, yet what clarity of expression!

There is a sublime sensuousness to Burch’s poetry. He weaves and crafts beautiful images of the sense, but he also does much more; he does what all great poets must do, he goes beyond, and he takes us beyond with him. That is to say, he doesn’t put something before us, which is unfathomable or purely self-referential and therefore unknowable; instead he makes the question of the unfathomable the conscious object of our attention, a “known-unknown.”

All great poetry does this, it says what cannot simply be said, and it does so, by showing us why it cannot be simply said, and why no one would want to simply say such a thing. In light of the fact that great poetry’s subject is never directly stated, it is ironic that the unspoken nature of the poem’s subject becomes itself the unsaid conscious object of our attention!

In this respect, Burch’s “Sunset” has a kinship with Percy Bysshe Shelley famous, “Ode to a Skylark.”

Regret

Regret,
a bitter
ache to bear . . .

once starlight
languished
in your hair . . .

a shining there
as brief
as rare.

Regret . . .
a pain
I chose to bear . . .

unleash
the torrent
of your hair . . .

and show me
once again—
how rare.

How brief, how rare indeed!

How rare to find someone who can weave beautiful compelling ironies out of barely any words, and yet there is a very clear sense of form, idea, and irony. Burch does not sacrifice anything through an economy of language, he only gains.

This is what true poets do. The subject of a great poem is never disclosed directly per se, but its unspoken subject, the unknown, becomes itself an intelligible unknown, a “known-unknown.”

In the case of “Regret,” Burch plays with [the] musicality of vowels and consonants and language generally, which is something Dante spoke about in his De Vulgarie Eloquencia when he stated that the vowels within a poem should be made to “dance.” Burch makes all his vowels dance and rock to and fro, carrying the oda of his little ditty into our minds with rhyme and meter.

We will close with one of our favorite poems by Mr. Burch, one [ ] we think all readers will likely carry with them for the rest of their lives—such is our confidence and esteem of Mr. Burch:

In the Whispering Night

for George King

In the whispering night, when the stars bend low
till the hills ignite to a shining flame,
when a shower of meteors streaks the sky,
and the lilies sigh in their beds, for shame,
we must steal our souls, as they once were stolen,
and gather our vigor, and all our intent.
We must heave our bodies to some violent ocean
and laugh as they shatter, and never repent.
We must dance in the darkness as stars dance before us,
soar, Soar! through the night on a butterfly's breeze:
blown high, upward-yearning, twin spirits returning
to the world of resplendence from which we were seized.

Published in Songs of Innocence

We only hope that more young people, more elderly people, and more people navigating through the deepest depths and crises of their lives will be afforded the opportunity of carrying around in their hands (and in their hearts) the poetry of Michael R. Burch, and that they may thereby create a more young, a more youthful, a more beautiful, and a more vibrant world—a world which reminds us that poetry is everywhere.

Originally published in New Lyre Magazine