Burke, Andrew. Andrew Burke, New & Selected. Launceston: Walleah Press, 2020. RRP: $20.00, 210pp, ISBN: 9781877010958.
It’s great to have a satisfyingly thick selection of Andrew Burke’s poems. Arranged chronologically, New & Selected Poems spans this distinguished poet’s long career. As Geoff Page remarks, it is ‘a well-judged summary of a life’s work’. It could also be considered an autobiography, as Burke’s long-time comrade Peter Holland observes, and in many of the poems, a present reminds Burke of a past: ‘then floats to now / in sharp-smelling mist’ (68).
I am not going to write ‘the speaker’. These poems do not pretend to be fictional. Burke quite often references himself—‘all my unwritten / poems are rising / to be born’ (17)—and although he tells himself to ‘Get out of your own head’ because ‘It’s not safe’ (92), the poems remain there. Happily, Burke’s head is interesting enough that we are content to linger as he practises what Holland calls ‘quietly and humbly observing’ as well as ‘talking about what has happened to him, what is happening to him’. Page, too, notes Burke’s ‘readiness to be autobiographical’, remarking that it adds an individual ‘personality’ to what might otherwise be a somewhat anonymous imagism.
This individuality also involves a unique and subtle music. In ‘Ars Poetica’ (1) Burke says he aims ‘to translate’ his heartbeat and the world’s ordinary sounds, such as the ‘hiss of gas when it / first flares’ (read that aloud!). The poem’s refrain, ‘sound before music / beat before language’, reminds me that Burke was once a jazz drummer, and Nathan Hondros, reviewing a previous collection, suggests we receive Burke’s poems ‘with the body like you would a drum solo’. They stay close to life’s rhythms, riffing off them but always returning.
In an interview, Burke himself explains how music informs his rhythm and diction:
For the ‘silences’ between some short lines/verses, you may say it is a trade mark of Miles [Davies]. And for the leaning towards using everyday phrases in a creative way, you might look at everyone from Cole Porter to Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. (Wessman)
Burke’s writing is also influenced by a broad range of poetry. As Hondros notes, although Burke’s poems can be appreciated without a background in contemporary poetics, they are ‘deliberately building on’ that work. For example, Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy’ seems to hover behind ‘Dear Father’:
I have made you up.
You are the air in my birthday balloon
Father, I untie you—
air rushes out
and I whoop… (35)
This tight, striking poem comes immediately after the appropriately lengthy and prosy ‘Mother Waits For Father Late’, which narrates this father’s alcoholic, suicidal history and its intergenerational effects. Burke is not afraid of difficult subjects. His poems are exquisitely sensitive to the challenges of masculinity, of living with ‘Father inside, / his father inside him’ (60) and struggling ‘to be a bloke / in this / jockstrap city’ (80).
There are also poems recalling heterosexual encounters. Such poems from men of Burke’s generation can be cringeworthy, but Burke appears to have progressed beyond objectification decades ago. The women he portrays have lives outside bed and are certainly not interchangeable:
[…] the one-eyed
mother, with her baby in a cot, offering
me her love, or something masquerading
as that, in dusky afternoon light, a room
rented after fleeing her husband (91)
In these poems, the broader story is what matters. Therefore, they foreground not the lust and flesh but the setting and atmosphere: ‘Her cat / growls as I take his chair before the fire’ (83).
That sentence, with its visual, aural and tactile imagery, shows Burke’s mastery of what Page calls ‘the William Carlos Williams aesthetic (‘No ideas but in things’)’. Some of the most successful poems are gatherings of haiku-like stanzas, as in ‘Autobiography’:
each block of wood
a head to chop
earth pushing up
the whistling wind
an open cloak
river rock crabs
drowned sailors’ hands
a sundial arm (66)
That’s the whole poem. Burke is at his most powerful when he allows less to be more, as he often does. As Andy Jackson observes, Burke ‘knows how the white space of the page can speak as strongly as the text’, and the new poems continue his practice of deliberate, playful arrangement. ‘Reverse Haibun’, for example, opens with a haiku I will never forget:
measuring the step
with her chin—
blind dog. (189)
As these lines illustrate, Burke’s poetry, although largely autobiographical, is propelled by an outward-looking empathy. These poems aim to give something to the world. Whether you are new to Burke’s work or a long-time reader, this brave, generous collection deserves a place on your shelves.
Holland, Peter. ‘A Poet to Hail and to Treasure: Peter Holland launches New and Selected by Andrew Burke.’ Rochford Street Review 29 (22 Sept. 2020). Sourced at: https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2020/09/22/a-poet-to-hail-and-to-treasure-peter-holland-launches-new-and-selected-by-andrew-burke/.
Hondros, Nathan. ‘Living Life in the Rhythm Section: Nathan Hondros reviews One Hour Seeds Another by Andrew Burke.’ Rochford Street Review 13 (29 Jan. 2015). Sourced at: https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2015/01/29/living-life-in-the-rhythm-section-nathan-hondros-reviews-one-hour-seeds-another-by-andrew-burke/.
Jackson, Andy. ‘A Disconcerting Bravery: Andy Jackson launches One Hour Seeds Another by Andrew Burke.’ Rochford Street Review 12 (15 Aug. 2014). Sourced at: https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2014/08/15/a-disconcerting-bravery-andy-jackson-launches-one-hour-seeds-another-by-andrew-burke/.
Page, Geoff. ‘Telling Observations.’ The Weekend Australian (17 Apr. 2021): 18.
Wessman, Ralph. ‘To and Fro with Andrew Burke.’ Communion Literary Magazine (Dec. 2014). Sourced at: https://walleahpress.com.au/communion2-Andrew_Burke.html.
Poet and writer Jackson was born in Cumbria, England, and lives in Australia and New Zealand. Her four full-length poetry collections include A coat of ashes (Recent Work Press 2019) and The emptied bridge (Mulla Mulla Press 2019). Her work has appeared in many journals and anthologies, notably the Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry. Her awards include the Ros Spencer Poetry Prize. In 2018 she completed her PhD in Writing at Edith Cowan University, winning the University Research Medal and two other awards. She works as an editor and a casual academic. thepoetjackson.com.