July 2006

Mark Doten


Parallel Play by Stephen Burt

Stephen Burt’s poems are so resigned and optimistic that they read like bulletins from some netherworld of belief, which is precisely what they are: Burt belongs to that rare sub-species of fan boy, the evangelical fan boy, who refuses to keep it like a secret; he wants the world to know about The Chills, moth-balled X-Men characters, Walter Mondale and women’s basketball, in spite of the world’s longstanding indifference.

Reading Burt’s new collection, Parallel Play, you can’t help feeling it’s the world’s loss. It’s one thing to hear commentators say that women’s basketball is a better game than the men’s, it’s another thing to see a star player in action: “You glide through them. You take the looks they lose.// As serious as science, picking clues/ And dodges that no other player sees,/ You find the skill that only you could use.”

This villanelle is the most joyful poem in the collection (and along with the tour-de-force “Six Kinds of Noodles” --   a sestina riff on Ashberry and Iron Chef -- the quickest to prove that Burt has his no shortage of own skills and dodges). But notice how even here, in the midst of team play, Burt focuses on the one who glides through untouched. Hence the title: parallel play refers to the developmental stage of children two and under when they won’t play with each other, but only next to each other. Burt’s people are likewise alone, even when they’re together, and it’s this unmoored quality that explains the sudden plunges of elation to regret; the line “Flip the lids up on your sunglasses: ‘It’s a new world’,” for instance, is followed by: “A sadness of missed, of just-missed expectations/ startles the Meat Districts rainy biers/ All you decisions/ Are yours now, to be made over again./ No one will tell you when you get them right.”

The Meat District, Morningside Park, the piers in Duluth, a front yard in St. Paul: for Burt the our lives are achingly local:  “If our/ business with/ the world/ fails,/ we’ll end// up here:/ expansively/ dilapidated/ Weatherfield, Maine,/ somewhere the train shoots through.” Lines like these are as wry and perfect as anything Stephin Merritt penned for the great Magnetic Fields road tripper, Charm of the Highway Strip, and suggest that if Burt is a virtuoso of twisting forms of the villanelle, he can be as disarmingly plain-spoken as Frank O’Hara. Burt’s first book ended, “I am not with you./ I will be with you soon,” lines that barely register in isolation, but like great rock lyrics stop your heart in the proper context; there are too more such moments in Parallel Play than I have space to reprint, but here are afew: “Appropriate flowers grow harder and harder to find.” “You and I have no share in this world to come,” and “I have been identified/ as gifted and dangerous.”

The book is at it’s most poignant in “Thanksgiving 2002,” which considers the death of Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone in the last days of his reelection campaign, and the subsequent loss of his seat to a Republican.

            The government froze, and then
            We found it hard to breathe.
            Bus stops where no one spoke
            Remembered other queues,
            Where flyers underfoot
            Dissolved like garlands, or
            The ghosts of a belief --
            Of willful false belief.

Here the parallel play is between the true believer and a world that picks up its marbles and skips away. So whose belief is willfully false? The characters described canvassing suburban Minnesota on behalf of Democratic candidates, or the voters who keep electing Republicans against all evidence of our reality-based world? Burt doesn’t say, only weeps in a stationary car: “Heart, don’t give your heart,” and concludes: “Only the fine art/ of replacing the pins on a map/ could save us, and even that/ seemed almost entirely lost.” Almost, but not quite. And it’s a characteristic Burtian gesture, this insertion of art -- a local, outmoded art that computers would have swept away years ago in a better-financed district -- as our source of consolation.

But let’s return to that earlier quote in which Burt self-identifies as “gifted and dangerous”: no one reading Parallel Play would doubt it, but he knows better than anyone that this isn’t going to help us win elections, much less find appropriate flowers. It’s Weatherfield, then, for most all of us, and without too many regrets. As he writes of two squirrels, “Their last resort,/ as they scramble around one another and around/ their own mercurial tails,/ becomes a cleft between two trunks, so dark/ nobody could inspect it from the ground:/ it could hold rubies, coded maps, a child.” In our era of missed expectations there’s always that last resort, that possibility of treasure.

Parallel Play by Stephen Burt
Graywolf Press
ISBN: 1555974376
80 Pages