Book Review: “A History of Guns in the Family”
By Tina V. Cabrera
A History of Guns in the Family
Ravenna Press 2008
“Nothing seems more natural and universal to human beings than telling stories.” J. Hillis Miller makes this observation in his critical essay, “Narrative.” He further raises pointed questions about why we read: “Why do we need stories?” and “Why do we need the ‘same’ story over and over?” His answer is that “we need stories to make sense of our experience,” and “we need the same stories over and over to reinforce that sense making.” There have always been storytellers to fill that void within us, whether the story is told through forms of prose or poetry.
John Burgess is such a storyteller through his poetry. “I don’t think I’m a good storyteller, but I wanted to tell my story,” he confessed in my recent interview with him about his second poetry book, A History of Guns in the Family. Nevertheless, this narrative collection, while a very personal story, evolves into an extended metaphor past the literal history of guns in his family to the landscape of America and its war mentality and fascination with gun violence. Perhaps this story sounds familiar – maybe we’ve heard it before. But Burgess’ unique treatment of this theme both attempts and succeeds at breaking the possible barriers in communication on such a touchy subject, through rhythm and repetition pleasurable to the ear. He works through questions of violence on both the personal and large-scale level through sonnets, short prose poems, postcards, ballads, and even koans – each inviting us to listen in on a story within a larger story. This second work is more mature than his first, Punk Poems, not straying from its theme as the latter did. Punk Poems ended with 10-line ‘imperfect sonnets,’ and A History of Guns in the Family begins as Burgess wanted it to, with sonnets, seeking to communicate despite all those ‘glottal stops’ that can interfere with human connection. “In the end, it’s really important for me to communicate,” Burgess says, and he does so, documenting one family’s story and our collective American story at the same time.
Take for example the first in the series, “Sonnets Left Unwritten At The Kitchen Table.” These unusual little songs set the stage for breaking down any barriers in communication, opening the way for the ensuing series of poems. The first thing that makes you stand and take notice is those ‘blackouts.’ Burgess clarifies where they came from. He originally wrote Shakespearean sonnets with ten beats per line. But then he picked his favorite phrases from the draft, and took a black marker to the rest. The results are these black blocks, a possible shock to attention, but also a signal to pause at just the right spots while read aloud. The subject of these brief sonnets is “this muted heart that repeats beats/that murmur/that skip that skip.” This heart is told to speak despite its impediments and stutters, despite the threat of sounding “glib.” And then the line reminiscent of Edna St. Vincent Millay: “how lips lip, how tongues tongue.” Burgess reveals his love for repetition of sounds, partly inspired by Millay: “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why” (From Collected 1956). His word play is also influenced by other poets such as Ted Berrigan and the language poets. Such imitations of other poets and their storytelling techniques is in keeping with Miller’s idea of rhythm: “Imitations are rhythmic, orderly, and it is natural to human beings to take pleasure in rhythmic form.” Indeed, reading these sonnets is pleasurable, especially when read aloud more than once, and spurs you on to read more. It doesn’t matter that in the past “sounds have fallen on deaf ears” – it’s all about “each day the getting up, the going on.” The heart and body go on, “despite the barriers of skin” – of miscommunication between people, and despite the everyday mundane.
The next in the series, “Gardener River Incident,” is far from mundane. Here, Burgess combines two or three stories from his experience in Montana into one story, doing so in little connected prose passages. He implements his journalism background, his experience working on a Montana survey crew, the idea of ‘pick-ups’ all with the tradition of the western tale/myth. This particular “maudlin” tale is of an anonymous woman who is picked up by another man after she leaves her husband. We are given the history of stones stacked in “pagoda-type configurations,” serving as indicators that “someone has passed.” There is a double meaning to this ‘passing,’ as we learn that this woman has indeed passed away, in a mysterious incident where she is swept away by a fast current. Her last sensation was that she was “stacked under stones.” But juxtaposed with the sad tale of this woman are other myths or tales, such as that of the “early fur trapper Johnson Gardner” by whom this river is named after. From him came the “mispronounced & thus misspelled town of Gardiner Montana.” He became known as “illiterate & brutal.” Later, as “colorful.” What is the truth? Burgess seems to be extending the idea of the problem of miscommunication prodded by presumption or even ignorance. Did anyone really know this young woman, or this Johnson Gardner character? All that is known seems to be through word of mouth or hearsay. There is doubt as to exactly how she died: “The victim may already have been unconscious or at the very least extremely intoxicated when at 4:17 a.m. she slipped into faster current.” Note the use of the words “may” with the exact time of “4:17.” A connection is also made “between the piling of stones & the evolution of civilization into antagonistic camps.” Here we are led beyond the violent end of this woman into the violent history of human civilization caught in a kind of backwards evolution or stone-age behavior – the evidence of this being in the “warring with stones…The Great Wall of China, New England cobblestone fences. Damns across western rivers.” My favorite two-liner is this: “Voyeuristic elk often watch from the other side of the river. To them how undeveloped naked humans appear on the far bank.” The tables are turned, roles switched – who are the more developed beings?
The theme of violence is brought home so to speak, in “The Johnny Poems: a small town sequence.” The events in this sequence are structured as occurring all in one summer, although Burgess attests that in reality they all happened at different times and places. Some of these poems are autobiographical, but some he heard from friends. Burgess was called Johnny when he was young, but says he “also chose Johnny as the archetypal punk – Patti Smith, William Burroughs, Bob Dylan all use the character Johnny as an outsider.” Johnny is a tough guy in a tough city, wearing his “needle-prick script inch-high toughness” as an “injury skin leather thick.” He leaves his small town for his dream of living in New York only to find a “land eroded feet dangled deepening blankness.” Johnny does violence to himself in this isolating and blackened city through amphetamine use and self-abuse with the flame of a matchstick and a razor blade.
“Landscapes of the 4 Seasons” is a response to two events in the same week: 9/11 and the death of Burgess’ father-in-law. The beauty of its form and language is in the fact that it’s one big Haiku. He wrote one poem each day based on what he saw as he unrolled a scroll painting by Sesshu, a prominent master of ink painting and a Rinzai Zen Buddhist Priest. Note #01:
before there is form there is
separate strands of horse hair
These opening lines refer to the terrorists of who brought down the twin towers, describing the first brush stroke in the drawing. But it also serves to set up the “desires we have for the things we think we need, which later in the poem comes out as ‘the embarrassment of our priorities.’” Can we learn anything from our embarrassments? From unrolling and observing the scroll of our history? Interestingly, #03 is made up of only one line: “rock knows enough to stay quiet.” Sometimes words are unnecessary or even harmful. Silence can be seen, at times, as strength.
The title poem, “A History of Guns in the Family” is where Burgess most directly addresses the theme of family, which also extends to the American family and to the most recent Iraq War. Each poem that makes up this section is about someone in his family. “Her Family Made Gaskets during the Second War” is most intriguing because it is a direct quote of Burgess’s ‘Grandma Burgess’: “Christ you drowned it she/bitched. Too much water/in her whiskey ditch. How/disgust smolders./Her cigarette left lit/edge of kitchen table.” And “Eulogy for a Land Surveyor” is a eulogy for his father who died when he was ten: “Faith as true/as a transit line a plumb/bob a steeple.” The steeple eulogizes his father and his strong Methodist faith. It can be said that this series extends to the war in the sense of giving voice to those trampled upon on their own land:
This is her 100 acres
dammit. Farmers come
to her to negotiate
leases. Plant their
seeds. It’s her who
pays the taxes. Feeds
three mouths. Keeps her
fences in good repair.
There are only six poems in “Postcards,” all three-liners. In snapshot style they convey images of conquered land: “what region remains unexplored,” and the obsession with guns: “almost done/shot at the rifle range/first class.” It’s a good lead in to “Ballads Under New Regime,” Burgess’ response “to the Bush Administration, U.S. involvement in world affairs, and America’s fascination with war and right-wing viewpoints. He envisioned these ballads with music, and so indeed he recorded them in studio sessions with his friend Jed Myers, implementing guitar, harmonica and bass with the spoken voice. Each ballad appears in the book with notes from the studio session as to the exact notes and style the poem should be performed with. Perhaps “Song for Sid” sums up the anti-Bush Regime theme best:
All that remains is sadness and regret
padlocked love imperfect couplets
Theories by deconstruction revisionists
home videos by punks amok and spit
All that dead radio radio played
boredom post dance floor collapse
Right-wing lies shot up mainstream
dustbin flowers strapped to power-pole shrine.
Perhaps it’s noteworthy to point out at this juncture that Burgess used only one form of punctuation in this entire collection – the period. He says this is meant to imply gunshots throughout the poems. The last and only period at the end of “Song for Sid” is a sharp shooter way of exclaiming the decay and violence prompted by our last regime, the Bush Regime and its obsession with using violence as a solution.
The unusually titled “Upon Being Hunted By Bigfoot” is an appropriated form of the koan form, based on the collection of Chan Buddhist poems originally compiled in China during the Song Dynasty in 1125. Here Burgess utilizes the form of mind puzzles each with a pointer, case and notes to guide the reader in an effective manner, capturing what it would be like to be hunted down or watched, like Bigfoot. The final koan’s Pointer says, “One witness reports it. One hundred repeat it.” What do they witness and repeat? “Headlines of sightings and elaborate hoaxes.” Perhaps these hoaxes refer to what we hear and see through the media, or what we are led to see and hear, which leads to judgments and reactions, or rather reactions to the reactions our government has already taken behind our backs. “Bounty hunters with high-powered rifles or tranquilizers desire nothing more than proof.” America, under the Bush regime is a collective hunter, ready with gun in hand, desiring, ironically, nothing more than the proof needed to pull the trigger. The pull was pre-emptive.
The final series in this collection is named, “Speech Impediment.” It is also Burgess’ favorite, the effect seamless as he hardly had to do any editing. It is also fun to read, especially beginning with the “ah” and ending with the drawn out “hum.” It is the love poem of the collection, dedicated to his wife Patsy, and is a record of a road trip they took, but backwards. Burgess says that the notion of the westward movement is really important to him and so he chose to talk about their actual trip from Montana to upstate New York backwards. The focus however is on his family, which is again, what this book is about. Interestingly, he uses bits from the reports recorded by his speech therapist. He didn’t speak until he was 5 years old; his sister spoke for him. Whereas the opening sonnets were concerned with the problems of communication barriers and miscommunication, this one praises “tongues loosened,” and the sound of “the pop of pull-tab tops.” It rejoices in “singing along with the jukebox/slow ballad,” and hopes in how “years from now we’ll yell into each other’s good ear.” After all is said and done, there’s “nothing left but hum.”
Can this hopefulness be extended to the larger American family? Is there any possible sense to be made of the story of our own experiences with personal and large- scale violence? We can and should “hum” at the close of Burgess’ testament to America’s misspellings, illiteracy, antagonism, dislocation, underdevelopment, erosion and embarrassment, because there is still the reality of:
how one body acts with another
the getting up.
the going on.
Lifting our voices up in song