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The Literateur Online - Review of We Look Like This by Alastair Beddow


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30 July 2012

What is most surprising about Dan Burt’s poetry and prose collection We Look Like This is how familiar it feels. This is surprising not because somebody of 70 years of age with a distinguished legal – rather than literary – career behind him should have published such an assured first full-length collection in later life because, given how much of the volume deals with Burt’s American-Jewish upbringing, his work reads much like that of his European contemporaries: Michael Longley, Paul Muldoon and Thomas Kinsella all come to mind. Like these great poets, Burt’s work finds its voice through allusions to classical mythology, to poetic forebears such as Yeats and Tennyson, or to European art. And just as two of that Irish trinity have utilised their extensive time spent in America as a way of writing about time spent back home, Burt’s work makes that transatlantic journey in reverse.

Its familiarity, however, can also belie the subtlety of Burt’s writing. There are several poems in this volume that could undoubtedly hold their own next to works by Longley, Muldoon or Kinsella. ‘Winter Mornings,’ for example, takes the form of a bitter-sweet tromp l’oeil in which mirage morphs into memory; the momentary mis-sighting of a figure in Hyde Park leaves the poet ‘Like a drawn watch too long at sea’ to recall the pain of a distant love.

As in ‘Winter Mornings’, the majority of the collection takes comfort by wrapping itself in the past tense. For Burt, the recourse to the past is mainly etiological: a way of grappling with root causes or of finding answers to present-day problems that are best satisfied through esoteric metaphors. In ‘Death Rattle’ Burt describes this perspective as a kind of defence: ‘behind the id’s redoubt / The moral mind curls like a porcupine / Balled against a dog’. In many of Burt’s poems, the completion of the poetic act itself, the physical manifestation of thought via the words on the page, functions as a catharsis seventy years in the making.

Whilst this may sound solipsistic, for the most part Burt’s work neatly balances the mythologic and the actual. The most successful poems in this regard come at the beginning of the collection. Three poems – ‘Who He Was,’ ‘Death Mask’ and ‘Slowly Sounds the Bell’ – explore the death of the poet’s father, mother and brother respectively and the extent to which poetry can be a legitimate vehicle for exploring, or perhaps containing, this painful experience. Burt’s language in these poems is among the most violent in the collection: his father ‘catapulted from his armchair’ and later we are told his ‘swollen gut spewed crimson / Shit’. Yet beneath the violence is a genuine emotional intensity that is unmatched throughout the rest of the collection.

At the centre of We Look Like This is its greatest achievement: ‘Certain Windows’ is a 35 page prose memoir that elaborates on the early poems in the collection about Burt’s family, and prefigures many of the later poems about his adolescence. There is something playfully Heideggerian in the way Burt makes a connection between dwelling on the past and the dwellings of his past; ‘whether the outer dark appears benign or deadly depend on what we saw from certain windows in that house’ Burt asserts at the opening of his reminiscene. We Look Like This is worth reading for ‘Certain Windows’ alone partly because its descriptions of an immigrant upbringing in America constitute a fascinating social history.

What Burt offers the reader is not so much, as he terms it in his poem ‘Indices’, ‘a life, quantified,’ but something closer to a life, dissected. The poems are Burt’s way of working through, of making sense of, past trauma. For that reason, the choice of a Frank Auerbach painting for the cover of the work is astute: the artwork’s violent abstraction (all ‘oils, smears, brushes, pastes’ as Burt puts it in ‘Modern Painters’) forewarns the reader that what is to follow may appear painfully bleak, but will be executed with exacting, visceral commitment.

ALASTAIR BEDDOW