Chapbook Confessions is a series in which poets discuss, at length, the writing of their most recent collection of poems, in whatever way they desire. For more information on the series, go here.
First, I must confess I never intentionally set out to write a chapbook—both in the sense of writing poems specific to a theme or project, and in manuscript size. I always thought I’d write a “proper” book and as the years passed and the number of poems written and eventually published grew, that it would certainly be bigger than chapbook sized! Especially since I was late coming to the party, having put writing aside for twenty years to raise a family and then a further twenty to tease out the fruits of that elongated pause. I learned though that one hand must have shaken the other, and when I was ready, the words were ready—and not only ready but better than they might have been otherwise, having marinated and matured through their many seasons on the back burner.
The problem with late fruition, however, is a sudden cache of a lot of poems and an increasing pressure to send them out into the world. I was able to put 21 poems together for a mock publishing project my son had in university in 2008 and then we decided to go all out and self-publish the collection; it was called Stealing Eternity after one of the poems. He aced his project and I felt a real sense of accomplishment.
It is hard to believe that I let so many years pass before publishing another chapbook but I’m happy to report that Irresistible was published by Finishing Line Press in April, 2018. I’d sent this manuscript of 25 poems to three chapbook contests in the spring of 2017 and though it did not place in Finishing Line Press’ New Women’s Voices Chapbook Competition, they liked it enough to offer publication anyway. I was elated – I’d considered this submission a test run, having felt quite overwhelmed at deciding which poems belonged together and in the end, capping the manuscript at 25, it became clear that though I had plenty of publishable poems, I was out of my depth in selecting and arranging them – that big book would have to wait! I thought that I might learn some editing skills from FLP but my manuscript was accepted exactly as is. They were quite informative however regarding its promotion.
The poems in “Irresistible” have transitions in common—from death and dying, whether accidental or planned, to milestones such as a son leaving home etc. There’s love palpably felt after death and beyond it, little epiphanies from near-disasters, the whole subject of death from many different angles—the news that breaks us, how our lives are enlarged by telling moments. The title poem “Irresistible” and “Tandem Hang-Gliding Incident” embody our human failings and the unnecessary accidental deaths we suffer as a result. Both of these poems are factually based and underwent a fair bit of revision over a couple of years as I looked for the right ending and viewpoint (which means I got a lot of ironing and walking done—two physical activities that help loosen me up when I’m stuck). “Tandem Hang-Gliding Incident” won IthacaLit’s Lauren K. Alleyne Difficult Fruit Poetry Prize in 2016 and that became the impetus and anchor for this chapbook. I couldn’t resist titling the chapbook after its namesake poem: physically, death is inevitable and therefore irresistible. It will happen sooner or later: our first breath inspires our last, so to speak, and our last—for those believing there’s more beyond our bodies—inspires our first on a different plane. I also liked the open-ended suggestive nature of the word itself. To that end, I chose and cropped a water picture taken by my son, a talented photographer, for the book’s cover. I thought the blurred dreamlike effects perfectly captured the setting of the title poem and the impenetrable depths of the worlds we live in and move between.
All of these poems were sparked by events or imaginings that moved me. We are here for such a short time—a blink of the millennial eye—and I wanted to convey an appreciation for the preciousness of life in all its forms (animal journeys as well as human ones) while offering buoys of humour, irony and joy throughout. “Glass Slippers” opens the book on a joyous innocent note and “Date Night” closes on “that glad spark/of recognition”. In between are poems written in different decades, including three from Stealing Eternity.
“Hunter and Ziggy” is one of those three and for a little poem, has been the most shared and responded to. It concerns a real event, an electrical fire in an old house in Montreal when the family is out for lunch. The family is my brother-in-law’s daughter, husband and two kids—their beloved animals at home. There was no house insurance. I’ve already said more than what’s in the poem itself—you see, when I got the phone call with the terrible news and that final image of their dog and cat, I was so overcome with emotion that I could write no more than what’s in the poem. I’ve checked back over the years and the poem for me still stands as is. It was a valuable lesson in brevity, in less being more. I confess to not always knowing when to stop composing and this poem serves as my honest traffic light—say only what needs to be said. There was a time when I wanted a poem to resolve itself by the end but my greatest satisfaction now is to leave a door open, let the reader come and go, perhaps a wind from nowhere disturbing things a little, some light glancing in.
Speaking of touchstones, there’s a foot-long stone black panther that has stalked a corner of my desk for ten years now. His jaws are open and he’s looking right at me. I bought him from a beach vendor in Mexico after a powerful dream in which one picked me up in its mouth and half-carried, half-dragged me to a path I was supposed to be on, before letting me go, mission accomplished. I can almost hear him growl do what needs to be done. And so, almost every afternoon, I sit at my desk for an hour or so and work, mostly revising/editing, for whatever genius poem I wrote or rewrote the day before has definitely faded (what was I thinking?)—and yet that “almost there” step seems to be a crucial part of my process, a kind of one step forward and two back. Uncomfortable, yes, but eventually a poem I’m happy with results. And it helps to write longhand on lined paper or make bubbles of images/words willy-nilly over the page before keying it into the computer and printing it out. Plus every poem I’ve ever written appears by date in binder after binder, later corrections included and initialled. I tend to live with a particular poem for days, weeks, even months; in that respect I am a slow writer. Even my epiphanic poems—like “Miracle”—require their share of time crafting the initial inspired rush, to make them the best they can be.
A good poem has three lives: on the page, on the tongue, and in the greater community of others (as in a book). A great poem enters the heart and never leaves. Two lines by William Wordsworth that have long sustained me: To me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears. As a longtime meditator, nature lover and summer boater I don’t have to look far for inspiration. And sometimes those deep thoughts flower within the daily intimacy of a shared life—some bittersweet revelation surfaces, as in “On Hearing That A Friend’s Husband Died In His Sleep” or a larger mythology suddenly floods an ordinary moment/event, as in “It Rains For Him”. To chase the ineffable, at least corner a defiant thought, stalk an elegant, elusive longing across the page are all primary labours and acts of love for me—you, the anonymous reader (should I be so lucky)—a later affirmation that we met and danced the briefest dance perhaps, but we did dance.
Lynne Burnett lives in the Pacific Northwest. Recent publications include Arc, Blue Heron Review, Comstock Review, IthacaLit, Mockingheart Review, New Millennium Writings, River Styx, Tamsen, Taos Journal of Poetry & Art, and a number of anthologies. She is the 2016 winner of the Lauren K. Alleyne Difficult Fruit Poetry Prize, has been nominated for Best of the Net and was shortlisted for Arc’s 2018 Poem of the Year. She maintains a blog/website at https://lynneburnett.ca/
“Bride Drowns While Modelling Wedding Gown Near Rawdon”
CTV News Montreal – Aug. 24, 2012
First a coquettish dip of toes in the shallows, then a saucy
wade, the mud bottom making it easy to balance.
The Oureau River glinting, hurrying out of sight. Just Maria
and the photographer, before she consigned the dress to a box.
What next but to lift her veil, unmoor a few minds?—
swim a little, where it was deeper … not knowing
how thirsty that dress was: how it would drink and drink
and drink, until its weight was unbearable,
no Houdini to hold open the elevator door long enough
to uncuff her from all the snug finery, the lacy squeeze
of her lungs, irresistible pull to the river’s bed.
How her heart surely sank before she did, gonging
regret and betrayal. Sounds like a Stephen King story—
a gown with vows of its own. No, the horror’s more
the slippery ease with which vanity slides under our skin,
looks in the mirror, one way or another does us in.
Tandem Hang-Gliding Incident
An anniversary gift, her first time doing it
Lenami Godinez-Avila, 27, hugged the pilot
from behind as instructed, ran with him
awkwardly to the edge and stepped
into the wind-tug beyond anyone’s reach—
her harness not clipped on. She fell
like Icarus a thousand feet, melting
from sight with the pilot’s shoes
into a sea of limbs webbed with leaves
down, down to the forest floor.
Her boyfriend, filming it,
stopped. Love screamed
through the air as he ran down
Mt. Woodside to find her.
Until he did, there was hope.
The pilot glided back to an open
mouthed crowd, to his twelve
year old daughter watching,
and swallowed the memory
card onboard. His fiftieth birthday.
Who hasn’t known each of them
in dreams?—where we fall without
falling, see what can’t be happening,
get to creatively escape a bad scene.
And wake relieved, our lives still
hanging by a thread of assumptions.
across the dewy lawn,
the grass riotous with light
that began its journey toward her
over four billion years ago,
light that will burn five billion
years more after she’s gone,
like candle to candle lit
my pixie daughter’s a thirsty wick
for joy, sure any life glad to be
is all that matters,
and I want to tell her yes
while light is leading her heart
out its small window
of time, and blade by blade
from beaded grass her
own glass slippers made,
before gravity weighs in.
Often my husband and I meet for dinner at a busy restaurant.
I’ll ride the bus so we can drive home together in his truck.
Whoever’s there first grabs a couple of seats at the bar,
orders two glasses of Malbec, sips one and waits.
I like to think that’s how it’ll be in the afterlife—
one a little behind the other, the door opening
into the hum of an obviously popular place.
Zigzagging through the crowd—that glad spark
of recognition, both of us brimming with news.
Hunter and Ziggy,
a rascally lab-shepherd
and grumpy old cat
didn’t much like each other;
both bristled to share
the same family,
After the fire,
curled up –
for the first time,
under the upstairs rug,
the cat that couldn’t
swat death away,
the dog’s clumsy paws.
Is it a miracle
that I found the worm in time—
having gone into my den much earlier
than usual, to turn the computer on—
and saw the dark, exhausted thread of its
body lying in the middle of a desert
of beige carpet, picked it up, barely moist, and
laid it outside on the wet grass, and watched
until it finally waved goodbye at one end,
easing itself into the darkness it knows?
Or is the miracle
that the annelid slid
through sealed doors and windows
to get inside my house in the first place,
that it became a finger pointing
from the Buddha’s hand,
laying at my feet its five paired hearts
and the power of intervention—
of life continued
or of death without comment?
Is there a day without its miracle,
for doesn’t one follow the other
because of a vast accordion of worms
playing now the soil’s anthem, now its dirge,
burrowing through millennial darknesses
so plants can breathe and grow, and
become the planet’s green lungs feeding
the body of this world, each inhabitant
still part of that first inspiration:
the good air of life lived, wholly inspired.
On Hearing That A Friend’s Husband Died In His Sleep
Death’s an increasingly regular face
in our crowd, mostly dropping by
unannounced, such that I, too, might
turn over one morning, prompted awake
by Brother Jake on our favourite rock
radio station and find you smiling, your
eyes still closed, and nestling my head
as usual into your armpit and laying
my left arm across your belly,
fall through the ice
of a body devoid of breath,
and wonder what bad dream this is.
Forgive me for thinking then of your
Achilles heel—your feet so sensitive,
no one can touch them. For three
decades, just the dare of my hand
hovering over an exposed foot has
got you up and running. I confess to
imagining your eventual acquiescence
as a deliberate act of love to me some
wine-deep night on holiday. Not me
frantically rubbing your feet, rubbing
them like magic lamps, wishing
It Rains For Him
who loves it more than sunshine,
the streets so wet tonight, they are tongues
babbling in the dark—glossolalia—
they gleam baptismal, it’s like
the slosh of good wine in the mouth,
how many ways can it be praised? and
how auspicious!—easier to leave the house
he was born in twenty-one years earlier
when drop by drop it taps on every window
calling his name, and out he goes for a walk
(like having a bath sprinkled with Dead
Sea salts, he can’t help but wallow in it)
such a glad soak, hair dripping, shoes
squishing already reaching the corner
and look, the light is with him,
the interminable traffic has stopped,
the next step beckons—that wide avenue
known to swallow a man whole—
now’s when a mother crosses
her fingers—momentum will carry him
curb after curb walking on water like this.
“Tandem Hang-Gliding Incident” – IthacaLit (2016 Winner of the Lauren K. Alleyne Difficult Fruit Poetry Prize)
“Hunter and Ziggy” – Geist
“Miracle” – New Millennium Writings
“On Hearing That A Friend’s Husband Died In His Sleep” – The Malahat Review
“It Rains For Him” – Taos Journal of Poetry & Art