In the ten years since Michael Burkard’s last book of new poetry, Unsleeping, we have witnessed the rapid rise of what Stephen Burt has aptly termed “elliptical” poetry. Every generation generates a standard poem model (deep-image confessional succeeding “well-wrought” formalism succeeding free-verse imagism), and ellipticism seems to be ours. Marked by manic shifts in diction, fractured narrative, and an aleatory quality that makes one think that, like warships colliding with the moon, anything can happen at any moment, the elliptical mode has the advantage of freeing the writer from the strictures of signification. The poet can generate sizzling new figures of speech and mind-boggling feats of discursion, as Burkard’s new book, lucky coat anywhere, demonstrates.
Burkard’s career has been that of the model-poem writer. This is not a criticism. In fact, he is one of the poets to whom we might look to see what constitutes the most ambitious of current poetry. His earlier books, such as None, River (1979) and Fictions from the Self (1988), channel the strangeness of Tomas Tranströmer and the frankness of Robert Creeley, in post-Sixties narrative-autobiographical language. His lines tended toward the mid-length accentual-syllabics of the workshop poem, although with more music and zest than those of most of his contemporaries. His new book shows Burkard reaching long, exploratory lines into the ruined emotional landscape of middle age. He cleaves to a slightly dated surrealism (“At the Hotel Vallejo you could rent. . . / death for five dollars an evening”), but he now revels in the misreadings, puns, broken syntax, and leaps of logic that have been emerging in his work for forty years. Lines such as “Under the panties the child is painting / Under the tree and the too and the truck,” which have become almost standard in new verse, transfer a good deal of the poetic work to the reader. Fortunately, Burkard’s beautiful sense of rhythm and musical energy seduce us into offering our own energies to the poet’s imagination. lucky coat anywhere is one of those books that will continue to reward the diligent reader the second—or the tenth—time through.