The Innisfree Poetry Journal

by Greg McBride on Rick Bursky

Rick Bursky, Death Obscura.  Sarabande, 2010.

(Note that six poems from this book appear in this issue of Innisfree.)

The first poem ("The Mandolin") in Rick Bursky's comic, tender, elegiac, and surreal second collection, Death Obscura, begins "This was the night the police chased the musicians from the roof . . . ."


And we're off on a romp through Bursky's fecund imagination, as if swept away with the Beatles from their 1969 rooftop concert.  The association seems more than apt, as Bursky's poems provoke and delight even as they engage in the serious business of inquiring into love, death, traitors, numbers, memory, and whatever else is on his mind or in his heart.    


The poem continues with "This was the night someone hid a mandolin in a garbage can . . . ," just as in these pages, Bursky has secreted poems that sing in lines syntactically whole, but afire with disorienting surprise and humor, as in "Cardiology":


A surgeon sold hearts he carved from oak.

Some people have nothing to lose,

he said, sanding a pulmonary vein.


Bursky tells small stories that assume large dimensions in the course of which he tosses off the poignant, "The original purpose of the box / was to contain the emptiness"; kicks off the improbable, "I named seven stars after her left eye. / Astronomers protested. / Dictators were jealous. / Two religious leaders were outraged"; and makes the mordant beautiful:  "In the early morning, windows wide / to the luscious odor of winter's corpse . . . ."


His spare free verse is corralled in service of these stories.  His narrator gives the impression of a chameleon channeling his ventriloquist.  There's a wry intimacy to the voice most noticeable when the subject is love or the hope of love.  "The Chrysalis" begins with a woman's question: "'If you were me, would you love you?'"  He feels her question "in my chest."  He tries to kiss her.  Then,


The next day at work, concentrating

on my responsibilities, the accuracy

of foot-long wooden rulers, became difficult.




Bursky tells stories that hover around the edges of the plausible then in one turn run off the rails into wildly imaginative territory, and that's where these poems dwell, in the mind of the storyteller where the reader finds much tentative and longing reckoning at work.  These poems arise from a past Bursky freely confabulates yet uncannily defines:


The past smells like a lost dog.

The past is so damned tired,

following us around.

The past can be forgotten

for a while, like you can forget

you're wearing glasses.

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