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Trailing in the Wake of Story: The Poetry of Burgess Needle

    Narrative verse has found a new voice, a storyteller of verve and brio, recasting the lapidary virtues of the short story into musical lines, new American rhythms and inflections. The tales Burgess Needle tells come from all sides, from his childhood struggle with a casually brutal father, from the Arizona people and landscapes, from the travel experiences of his countercultural youth as a wide-eyed TEFL teacher in Thailand. Some of the tales come from myth and history, from anecdotes gleaned in the contact zone along the Mexican border. And some reflect on his own daily life, poems found in the mirror, in the hospital bed, in his partner’s arms. All of the stories share a vigorous and natural style of delivery, a line rich in real things, details, voices, lived experiences, all animated by a spirit of enquiry, a feeling sympathy, a spirit of openness, candour, love of life. The quality of the tone is difficult to capture – it combines a breeziness, freshness of diction, and sense of story as natural as Chekhov’s; but combined with sharp craft, an ear for a good line, a deftness of rhythm and word-music. The stories inhabit the lines as their own true spaces, as just as the relation of adobe wall to arroyo.

     The stories traditionally associated with the Southwest, as Audrey Goodman has shown, look to the desert for the solace of wilderness, an innocent mindscape, the blessings of the purity of empty space. These Anglo literary clichés about the Sonora desert, the canyons, the rocky world of the malpais preserve in aspic a screen memory of a peacable world without guilt, flattering the conscience of the Anglo communities with the fictions of Zane Grey, Mary Austin’s translations, Charles Lumnis’ ethnography. The arts of peace were found in the Southwest zone, though, through Willa Cather’s dream of pre-Pueblo cliff dweller culture in The Professor’s House, Leslie Silko’s recreation of Navajo oral tales in Storyteller, ‘a peaceful art in full awareness of war and its effects’, as Janis Stout has argued. Burgess Needle’s Tucson stories are peacable in this spirit – they take stock of the aridity of Anglo assumptions and water them with the quick speech and lore of the more ancient dwellers. At the same time, they are not guilt-stricken, for they have travelled the world and learnt stories which have established a quiet and gentle spirit of cooperation and love in this Anglo voice.

    The collection is divided into three sections: ‘Connections’ draws strength and colour from the perception of relation in odd improvisations and meditations on very specific and seemingly unrelated topics. A poem about billboards which spy on their onlookers using concealed digital cameras turns into a spin on 21st century love as well as a weird challenge to the reader of this very watchful poem: ‘You / Do you remember me / Are you still watching’. Memories of a tough job working in a dye mill in ‘In the Mill’ and ‘Alejandro’ exfoliate into tender reflections on friendly care across divides. The surreal ‘Trust No Promise Given on Earth’ imagines a dialogue between scientist and priest which explores the violence at the root of history. ‘George Dreams Us into Being’ is an extraordinary war poem in the shape of a dream dreamt by Paul Revere of American history as warfare – from Revolution through to the bloodbath hypocrisy of the current wars of conquest which betray that Revolution. ‘Sandwich Game Sermon’ reimagines a comic version of Whitmanian democracy in the form of simple acts of fair exchange – whilst finding political roots in his American childhood on top of a Dylanesque comradely wit (‘My parent raised / me to be with the people, so here I am with you’). These random pieces seem to have no common theme – except that they all in some way or another find connections between people which are authentic, true-democractic bonds of attention, friendliness, and love which are yet in full awareness of war and the creepy exactions of modern culture, spy billboards and all.

    The second section, ‘Trips’, journeys back in time to the time spent as a trippy teacher in Thailand in 1968 and 1969 – these are Vietnam years, but the war is not mentioned. Given the passionate condemnation of Vietnam in the Revere fantasy, this is surely strategic – Needle’s encounter with South-East Asia includes trips into Cambodia and the Mekong, so summon that terrible ten-year war. Yet all the stories are peacable, sweet and entrancing, witty and engaging stories of transformations, incarnations and oddball experience. The Sixties’ search for various forms of tourist nirvana is acknowledged but offered up as a true retort to the devastation of S-E Asia over the border in Vietnam. His love affairs, the travel wisdom he acquires, the gifts of knowledge received from the Thais, the exploration of visionary otherness through spriritual discovery are familar to the genre of 1960s reminiscence – but here given zest, charm, fertile imagination along the lines, and out of travelogue issues true poetry:

     My next incarnation shall find me cool as Kali
       famished    eager to be touched by stars
       eager to rub against the moon until polished
    Hard as any glass

The warm self-deprecating comedy of these lines fills with a fluid energy close to exaltation you can register in the lovely modulation from ‘Kali’ through ‘stars’, ‘hard’ to ‘glass’.

    The freedoms discovered by contact with the Thai communities are brought back to the United States in ‘Close to Home’, the third section. Here Needle registers the strangeness of America, the alien spaces of a Safeways, the blistering heat of a Tucson evening, the city-threatened experiencing of the saguaros and palo verde trees – perceptions heightened by the see-it-new clairvoyancy with which his nomadic youth gifted him. The effort to see the real stars hidden behind Tucson’s light pollution in ‘Tucson Night’ (by way of a makeshift telescope crafted by his friend Bob) is a figure for the countercultural credence that still pertains in Needle’s person and art. It is not a romantic dream of pre-modernity, but an ecological sustaining of the vision that helps make his poems, and which helped make the Southwest part of the real (and not postmodern) world of sights and lights and constellations. The enemy is the madness of the city as ruled by the zombie presence of his ‘old tyrant’ father, ruler of money and deceit. In ‘Last Kill’, Needle relates a Jack & the Beanstalk exploit, stealing the ogre’s money – though ruined by the boy’s Oedipally driven betrayal of his mother in the struggle. In these intimate memories of childhood, Needle establishes lines of connection between his nuclear family and the world his poems space out. Other poems detail hospital visits (‘Rads’, ‘Blockage’), but in the context of poems of fantasy and wild geopolitical wit – one poem imagines a night out with Caravaggio, another a night journey round the world and into family history through spectral machinery. The effect is to estrange the domestic, and to domesticate the fantastical, with a comic light touch that recalls high ballad. All these poems are addressed to ‘natives and travelers alike’, a characteristic blend of the local and global which has not been postmodernized into commodity and capital, but is rather the product of attentiveness to difference, the preserving of the ethical need for loving vision, being with the people, affectionate ‘commonality’ and ‘light gravity’ of word (‘Welcome’).

    Needle’s poems are technically of great interest: they are more often than not 40+-line blocks, sectioned into units by lineation indents in the William Carlos Williams tradition, with breath breaks in some lines giving syncopation and interlinear emphasis. The Williams-ite form is infused with Creeley-influenced storytelling. The lines read through with grace due to the powerful onward pull of the narrative, yet the lineation and the freshness of effects within each line make one pause and savour. For instance, with this line – ‘The Greenland ice sheet slips off earth’s bed’ – the Donne-like geographical wit crosses globe with bedroom, eroticizing ecological anxiety at the same time as finding domestic affect at home with the world. The line is spiced up with close sound textures (‘Green’-‘sheet’, ‘ice’-slips’-‘earths’) which help organize the beat-regulated line into real voice. Burgess Needle’s poems are regional, American and world texts all at once. They bid welcome to all true travelers, all natives of this earth’s bed under so much threat. And they do so through story.

     A little motif runs through this collection. ‘Grandfather Antonio’ tells the story of ‘one weird dude’ who used to crash funerals for the free booze: he is an expert at ‘trailing funerals’ until one of the dead spooks him out of the habit. In ‘Trust No Promise Given On earth’, the bishop’s shift is seen ‘trailing fresh / bodies leaving a crimson wake’. In a poem about Pompei, Needle imagines one of the Etruscan women having a time-travel dream forward to present-day America: ‘Trailing bed clothes she pulled / her hair and only then saw / bright magma easing her way’. In all three cases, the poems imagine death and destruction in the wake of human presence on earth. Yet at the same time the poem-stories are themselves wakes left behind by the people heading for destruction or conscious of the trails of bodies left behind by history. Burgess Needle’s poems enact many things, but they do this best of all: attend to the trails left behind of human story, re-experiencing their lived presence, and alerting us to their fresh reality under menace of the destruction easing our way.


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