Tag Archives: Slip by Cullen Bailey Burns

Buttons, Hard Work, and Poetry

Dad is out of the nursing home! He told me that he listened to me (haha, this must be a first time!) and worked really hard to get out of there.  I had made him promise to try his best.

So he is home and that is a more comfortable place to be, although I know that he is still very uncomfortable. What a difficult recovery.

I found these buttons in a drawer yesterday. They belonged to my grandmother who was a great tailor/seamstress. My father’s mother. These buttons are at least 50 years old–some perhaps much older. I think my father gets a kick out of me saving stuff like this. When his mother passed away, he created a collage of scraps of her clothing that he hung on the wall. And he made Christmas decorations by pinning her costume jewelry onto styrofoam “Christmas trees.”

 

UPDATE: here is a link to a blog, Telling Family Tales, I’ve been reading for a long time. She has ideas to use those old buttons!!!

On another note, remember the “Feeling Confused” post by Cullen Bailey Burns?

I finally wrote a review of her gorgeous 2nd book. I loved Cullen’s first book Paper BoatIt came out in 2003, and I wrote a review for Amazon for it. Most of the poems were written after the unexpected and terribly tragic death of her only sister. The book was really an elegy for her sister–a beautiful tribute to a life lost too soon.

Now Cullen has a 2nd book out, Slip. And this book is a wonderful example of contemporary poetry. This the review I put on Amazon and Goodreads:

There is something holy in the language of the poems in Slip, Cullen Bailey Burns’ second book, as if it were a consecration of both representation and thought. Maybe it’s that so many poems call the reader to action: to imagine anew, to find nostalgia in surprising places, and to be as one with the “we.” Like any sacred ritual, the identities of leader and participant meld. I am swept up in the miracle of grief and transformation: “There’s no one to call for help. The deer / swam straight at that sun. / / Such transmutation: water, sky, gold.” If we move with life’s changes, we will occasionally stand for a moment in “the golden light that makes us beautiful.”

It’s really awe-inspiring and humbling how much wonderful poetry is being written and published year after year.

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Being Confused

Today I want to introduce a wonderful poet, Cullen Bailey Burns. Cullen and I go way back. We met in the MFA program at Western Michigan University. Since then Cullen has published two gorgeous poetry collections. Her most recent is Slip, out just this year.

by Guest Blogger Cullen Bailey Burns

Most of us hate the feeling of confusion; I know I do. In fact, confusion often causes a feeling of panic in me. In reading poetry, however, I have learned to look forward to and embrace confusion. The first moments when a poem resists me as I read it bring me to life and into curiosity in ways I find hard to explain. Take for example the wonderful Mary Szybist’s “The Troubadours, Etc.

The title catches me off-guard at the start. Isn’t there some rule about not using “etc.” in titles, that throwaway word? Then the first line, “Just for this evening, let’s not mock them.” I don’t know who the speaker is; I am not certain who the “them” is and I don’t know why we would be mocking to begin with. I am also confused by my complicity implied with the casual “let’s.” My confusion eases a bit in the next lines, when it becomes clear they are the troubadours, but arises again in the one-line stanza “At least they had ideas about love.”

Again, the implication here is that someone (the reader? the couple we meet in the next lines?) does not have ideas about love. As the poem becomes more personal, I understand the situation: a couple is driving west, the speaker meditating on distance, time, the meaning (possibility?) of love. In a series of moves that keep me off balance, the poem addresses a wide range of subjects, some visible to the speaker as she travels and some pulled from memory.

Toward the end of the poem, the speaker asks a series of questions, beginning with “At what point is something gone completely?” The “something” could be many things: passenger pigeons. Troubadours. Pilgrims. Love. Because the poet has so skillfully filled the poem with possibilities, the question can be about each of her subjects/all of her subjects at once.

And that’s the thing about confusion. Our minds’ desire to pin meaning down hard and fast is a desire for simplicity: this + that = something beautiful and smart. Isn’t that formula of many poems? But the best poems require us to linger in the space of not completely understanding, where we find many bolder, harder options. A poem could be about love (most poems are) but also about what passes, what we destroy, what we are unsatisfied with. This poem ends: “Then try, try to come closer–/my wonderful and less than.” In its unfinished comparison, this line refuses to explain itself, and mimics the distant horizon the couple travels toward, unreachable. As are the answers to our hardest questions about love and belief.

Ok, so that’s all well and good, you say, but what about writing? How does confusion help us write better? I would say this: we need to leave space. What’s brave about Szybist’s poem is that it trusts the reader will follow its twists and leaps, without a particular end in sight. Often when I write, I am so very tempted to tie everything up at the end in a lovely bow. “See, reader, what I’m doing here? See what this means?” How many years it has taken me to step back, let the poem be, trust that while my images and language must be as clear and tight as possible, meaning will be made in the reader.

Does not belong in a poem

 

Don’t mistake me. I am not arguing that a bunch of random images can mean just anything or that the writer should not understand or carefully construct the poem’s movement. I am not suggesting that a poem means anything a reader wants it to. But surprise, a temporary loss of our footing on the slope of a first reading, that’s good stuff. And a reader only gets that thrill if the writer leaves space for it.

Cullen Bailey Burns

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