The Space Between Words:
John Burgess’ A History of Guns in the Family
Ravenna Press 2008
by Gina Barnard
It is difficult to explain John Burgess’ second book of poems, A History of Guns in the Family, in a book review. The difficulty is not any fault of the poet—in actuality, it’s not difficult to read—as Burgess mirrors the experience of a whole life into this compact work of nine poems, most made up of sequences. The difficulty comes in the hands of the book reviewer, where one feels it’s not enough to say: read it. One wants to explain all that Burgess does in his almost pocket sized book because the book is seamless. Burgess layers throughout the volume, family and personal history in short sequences of poems, which follow and extend from forms such as the sonnet, ekphrastic, and koan to create a universal history and a conversation that extends past his own text. He weaves us through growing up in a small town, a speaker’s loss of voice, escape to the big city, and then meditations through landscape and song to reflect our present day world.
We are led to leap between the subtleties that connect the poems. We start with the title, A History of Guns, with a circle of a 12-gauge bullet shell marking each title page. In the epigraph, from The Deerslayer, by James Fenimore Cooper, Burgess sets us up for the beauty and reality of a history of guns:
The whole scene was radiant with beauty; and
no one unaccustomed to the ordinary history of
the woods would fancy it had so lately witnessed
incidents so ruthless and barbarous.
Yet Burgess’ poems do not so much as go into the ruthless and barbarous acts of hunting that he has set us up to encounter, as he does go behind the guns to portray family in middle America. In the title poetic sequence, he shows them “lifting [their] voices up in song / unionizers organizers revelators / stanzas of ordinary folk / ordering ordinary lives.” The land is important to them: “What it takes to bulldoze land / into drumlins. Seed deciduous / woods with forage. / Rake / fields clean of glacial till.” Then we have a speaker in the family whose moved away from belief as we see in the last poem of the sequence: Hymn of Apostasy “O what is sweet heaven / those spirituals rising / cadence of Methodists / dragging the canal.”
The poems that begin and end the book are concerned about this speaker’s voice— and its impediments. In a “mutilated” sonnet form, Burgess has blacked out words from the lines to evoke the sense of loss and jars us into feeling much like we are impeded in Sonnets Left Unwritten at the Kitchen Table:
“Speak [ ] this muted heart / that repeats beats [ ] / [ ]
that murmur // that skip that skip [ ] phonographic stutter between / impediment
[ ] between / utterance and sound.”
In Speech Impediment the theme is continued. Burgess starts the poem with the most basic of sounds: ah and ends with hum. Again this concern with the breath and voice: “between breaths read lips / the pauses / caused by sparse pines / the subtleties of / tongues / on pavement.” Then the impediment becomes gravel or an erosion:
he stuffs his mouth with pebbles
each word’s weight
stony not retractable
exposed by erosion’s
wash and tumble
sedimentary and mumbled
Yet the sounds of “spews scree / sedimentary” and the subtle rhyme of “tumble” and “mumbled” guide us to the larger voice in these poems that say that through impediment comes a beautiful rhythm.
In his ekphrastic poem, Landscapes of the 4 Seasons Burgess responds to
un-rolling a scroll painting by Sesshu in seventeen sections of short poems. In his first stanza, Burgess brings us into it with a thought:
before there is form there is
separate strands of horse hair
All experiences are connected artfully through form in Burgess’ A History of Guns in the Family. With the right intention, Burgess fluidly touches upon the human experience without overloading us with it. So much is said in the subtle spaces between his words.