Review of John Burgess’s Punk Poems

by Carrie Moniz



            When I first laid eyes on Punk Poems, the title and the simple black and white cover prepared me for an intense compilation of rebellious poems; I imagined stage-front, flying sweat, and loads of attitude. But what I found inside was a tremendously observed blend of east and west; of wisdom and emotion; of Lewis & Clark and the computer age; of punk rock, Montana, Mt. Fuji, Kerouac, and Cash. Once I picked it up I didn’t put it down until I had read every last poem. And even then, I kept finding reasons to return to it, thumb to a favorite line, idea, or image, and find someone to share it with. Fortunately the book’s small size has enabled me to slip it easily into my purse or front pocket of my sweatshirt, because I carry it with me everywhere.


The book opens with a fifty-poem sequence titled PUNK POEMS, which is connected by a delicate thread of thought process, metaphor, and Zen-esque imagery, as well as a ten-line structure. According to an interview with Christopher J. Jarmick of Web Del Sol Review, Burgess said the ten-line form was inspired by his punk rock attitude of “spit out what you've got to say and get off stage.”


            But for those punk rock enthusiasts out there who were hoping for hard-hitting, anti-establishment poetry, don’t fret. There’s a Patti Smith inspired chant, Velvet Underground lyrics as a goodbye, and a memory about Pogoing in the presence of Joey Ramone. Although Burgess doesn’t trash-talk any establishment, he does point out the tragic disconnectedness that seems to define today’s technological world:




Talk about the cellular

Level—an electronic search

For coincidence—past lives

Wrapped in coils & networks

Ones & zeros displayed

& out-of-focus

Not believing in connection

Until the knot


Swaggers like a cable.


                        Burgess’s many years in Montana and Japan are alive in these pages as well. A quiet sense of awe pervades his descriptions of the natural world, his thoughts about the power of music, art, and poetry, and his ideas about the nature of discovery:




He often thinks in brush strokes

& although it’s linear

It doesn’t travel between 2 points

In a straight line—

Instead it spreads

Folds in on itself—other times

It continues off the paper

Toward something undefined

& never heads

In the direction he expects.


            According to the interview, Burgess has been practicing Japanese calligraphy—a meditative art of fluid brush strokes and poetry—since 1988. His skill with a brush translates on the typed page in the form of fluid thought, calm contemplation, and careful, yet organic precision. Burgess’s sequence is reminiscent of spreading ink—the thoughts and ideas of each poem are not strictly contained, yet a sense of wholeness is achieved through numerous convergences. What feel like random associations are suddenly realized to have much deeper connections. For example, poem 47 of the sequence is dedicated to the late June Carter Cash, wife of late country legend Johnny Cash. What could a love poem about two country stars possibly have in common with Japanese Calligraphy? Spreading. Fluidity. Passion. And absolute devotion.


June Carter Cash, 1929-2003




Not so much love but a flood—

Not desire touch skin

Not intimate but a river—

Not body mind heart

But current awash

A carrying away—

Not forgive-forget reunion

Not meet again someday—not

Second-hand second-time around

But this moment nothing but.


One of the most refreshing aspects of Burgess’s work is its awareness of its own individuality. Each poem stands on its own while at the same time increasing the strength of the sequence as a whole. Many of the poems explore the same themes, ideas, and elements, from different perspectives, yet they do not apologize for their similarity of content. Instead, they celebrate the discoveries, the subtleties. Each new angle has its own inherent worth. This is especially true of the section that follows the first fifty PUNK POEMS, titled 17 VIEWS OF MOUNT FUJI. In the following poem, Burgess captures how one is unable to honestly view the world without experiencing it for oneself.






You can’t be a Buddha by reading a book—

You can’t know Mount Fuji from ukiyoe prints

Or travel brochures—

It’s not as you imagine—not snow-capped

Pine-framed meditative but sudden

Ashen & low—a kabuki actor

Without make-up—not obvious despite

All the new views—you won’t know it at first—

Only a break in the clouds



However, Burgess is not afraid to admit that sometimes he doesn’t want to find out for himself. In what feels very much like an examination of the many sides of truth, he is not ashamed to express the possibilities of non-experience:




(Didn’t climb Mount Fuji)

Sometimes it’s better

To imagine you did—

Desire lasts longer

Than Pictures

& postcards—

Keeps things

You want the most

Exactly the way

You want them.


Here he explores the emotional and psychological views of life—the idealistic view which would likely be shattered by the actual physical experience, due to the level of difficulty and danger, and the high probability of failure.


His display of self control and discipline within the boundaries of the ten line structure is reminiscent of haiku; and like haiku these small poems are dense with essential observation. The 17 VIEWS OF MOUNT FUJI poems in particular feel like expanded haiku, which is fitting considering their muse. But he does not force his ideas to remain contained within the confines of logical organization—Mount Fuji and Japan seep into the Punk Poems. A combination of punk rock and haiku inspired the form of both of the first two sections. Burgess’s thoughts are allowed to live and breathe on their own, without being herded into predetermined corrals.




He doesn’t go with the other men

To the pink salon—doesn’t strip

Off work clothes & lie on a bench

With calloused hands behind his

Head—doesn’t anticipate

The sliding door—the shuffle of a woman

In white terrycloth kimono—doesn’t get

The hot-towel treatment nor the handjob—

Doesn’t close his eyes & desire

He’s somewhere, someone else.


The book closes with two final sections titled INCIDENT AT YELLOWSTONE, and 10 IMPERFECT SONNETS. INCIDENT begins with the epigraph A Montana tale in 10 pieces from the fall of 1983 wherein a camper is mauled to death by a grizzly bear, which is all I’m going to tell you about this powerful little trip along a path to a fateful crossing, besides the fact that it is one of the only veerings away from the ten-line form in the book. As for the IMPERFECT SONNETS, John Burgess said the following in the interview:


They were originally Shakespearean 14-line sonnets with the end rhymes and ending couplet. They weren't that good as sonnets, so when we starting getting serious about publishing a book of 10-liners, I cut them down using the lesson I learned with ‘Incident’ and to fit the 10-line format.


What’s left after the editing process is the essence of what the sonnets were originally conveying. I will conclude with a few lines from Imperfect Sonnet 03 which defies the triteness of love poems. These lines exhibit Burgess’s curious imagination, and his unique way of seeing how everything in the universe is connected, however delicately or abstractly, to everything else:


Let atoms attract, let our lips

Speak for flesh on flesh

Let I’s single electron fly to

The soft round pucker of you.


Go buy this book! It will teach you about the world, about art, and most importantly about yourself.