A Review of Derick Burleson’s Never Night
by John Baalke
The soul is made of wonder; the soul is like a bucket that we use to gather every little piece of awe we encounter, those moments, joyous, epiphany, and terrifying. Burleson catalogues the making, the seeming simplicity of days, endless summer days, and the wearing dark of the long Alaskan winter. In his poem “Prophet,” he writes: “When the snow falls thick / among bare aspens, / I will wade down into // this vale and begin / to make my soul.” We have all been to this place, the chilling silence; the inner reaches.
Later in the same poem, Burleson says: “I will begin with words // made visible…” As children, the soul’s inlet is often wide open; barring some terror enters. But sometime after this, the soul becomes a cold and still place, skeptical of wonder, of mystery, for fear of terror. One must begin again, begin with words that rise out of the cold “into midnight / sky with none to hear” and soon the heat, the “strange green fire” will come like the aurora borealis. In “After This,” Burleson writes: “We’ll go back // to our own places and finally sleep, / smug with the fierce pleasure / of knowing that soul is the particular / song we learn to sing…”
In his poem, “Turbulence,” Burleson is still in Oklahoma, and the Medicine River runs crazy “rolling the rain down / across the Kansas border…” It is here that “someone older, say a grandfather / explains how the current can suck you down.” Burleson introduces faith “[t]hrough the dusty windows / of an abandoned church on the edge / of a prairie…” Although no one has attended this faith “in thirty years,” there exists a “slow pull” which makes “such faith seem an easy choice.” Not so, Burleson concludes:
But if you still don’t believe glass
is a slow liquid, no one will ever stop you
from breaking out each pane to see
how much settles to the bottom.
Just as making the wholeness of a soul takes endless days and nights, finding real faith to fill it seems equally challenging. The dusty windows might be cleaned, but they still look in to the stuffy interior. A broken pane will, at least, let the fresh air flow in.
In his sequence called “Mirabel,” Burleson catalogues the birth and life of his daughter; and the further making of his own soul. Perhaps the most beautifully perceptive poem in the sequence is the third, entitled “Raspberries.” Here one finds a renewed sense of wonder; that fresh latent soul-making, which comes through the eyes of one’s child:
In front of us, the cliff. Careful, I keep
saying. Keep your balance. It’s beautiful,
she says, meaning the berry in her hand,
the berry in her mouth, the canes loaded
with berries, the field, late July, sky and clouds
and fireweed blooming near the end, the bog
below us loaded with blueberries, salmon berries,
cranberries, crowberries, moss and spruce.
Meaning the alder thicket we’ll wade later
to get there. Meaning everything all caught
on the lopsided wheel of seed and sudden
death. Raspberries taste, she says, like sun.
In his poem “Outside Fairbanks,” Burleson uses a phrase which may aptly describe the entire book; and perhaps, much of life as well: “Such strange / juxtapositions.” It also describes, in a sense, the relationship of one soul to another, and in this case, father to daughter. Burleson, as father, is ever-concerned about his daughter’s place in time, in relation to life’s terrors; imagining he knows something about truth and goodness: “Careful, I keep / saying. Keep your balance.” His daughter’s receptive imagination is fully engaged with beauty; and always where beauty is found, there is meaning, there is real truth and goodness.