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The Times - Odes To A Harsh Planet by Elaine Feinstein

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26th May 2012

Review of We Look Like This - Carcanet Press

Philadelphia by Jonathan Elderfield

South Philadelphia gave Dan Burt a brutal childhood: as a five-year-old his father punched him in the face; as a teenager he had to work in the family butcher's shop; his mother came from a family of gangsters. The trajectory of his escape from this background, through the University of Cambridge and Yale Law School is unusual enough; the poetry he is writing now is remarkable. This is a major debut. Burt's tough, terse language explores the human truth reached when all protective skin is stripped away:

We look like this after things fall apart...
The painting is the autopsy report.

The uncommon formality of his verse is as necessary to him as the heavily worked paint in the Auerbach painting on the book's cover. History, once "the curtain fell on the enlightenment", includes the realities of human helplessness, and that long hatred of which the death camps of the 20th century is only the last desolate evidence. Indeed, his grandparents from Russia could count themselves fortunate to find themselves in Philadelphia. Ukrainian Cossacks murdered every man, woman and child in the shtetl they left behind.

In the traditional baths that the Jewish working classes brought from Eastern Europe, fishmongers, poultry men, knife grinders and others consoled themselves in hot steam from an exhausting week of manual work. Wrapped in towels,

They rest in rows like corpses gathered
After a Cossack raid on the Dnieper
It could have been Odessa before the War.

More surprisingly, he learns to fish when his father is convalescing after surgery and falls in love with the clean beauty of Atlantic waters. One of the loveliest lyrics in the book is about the experience of sailing into the inlet of Barnegat.

And pause -- to watch sedge sway
on flats,
Geese rise honking from wetland choirs,
The sun decline, a whirl of gnats
And the Light flick on at Barnegat.

For all his vision of a harsh planet, this is not a dispiriting book. There is the occasional amused love poem, or one delicately obscene. Moreover, he observes:

Bone, nerve and muscle cling to breath.
In the death camps few chose death.

This substantial volume includes Burt's riveting prose memoir, Certain Windows, which has already appeared as a pamphlet.