Taking Light from Each Other is the most recent volume of poetry by Jean Burden, poetry editor of Yankee magazine since 1955. She is also the author of Naked as the Glass (1963; poems),Journey Toward Poetry (1966; essays), A Celebration of Cats (1974; a poetry anthology), and several books on animal welfare. Individually, the poems from the new volume have appeared in such well-known journals as Poetry, The Saturday Review, and The Hudson Review. Jean Burden’s experience as a writer shows clearly in Taking Light from Each Other. Her poems are fine examples of contemporary poetry in terms of their careful craftsmanship and sharp eye for detail. More than this, though, the poems reveal a mature sensibility at work, one wise with age yet still tender and gentle, and one able to confront life’s difficulties with courage and wry wit.
The opening section of Taking Light from Each Other immediately introduces some of Burden’s concerns. Several of the first poems meditate on the ability of humans to communicate and to know each other and the world, set against a backdrop of sharply drawn nature imagery, while other poems deal with the deaths of friends. As is true throughout the volume, Burden’s best poems hesitate to provide easy answers to life’s hard realities. A fine example is the poem “You Ask,” which ponders how to reply after an unnamed someone has asked the speaker “what lasts.” The speaker admits that she has given up certainty, saying “I used to know: stones, the pull/ and suck of tides, trees/ rooted in ore.” The tone darkens when she says simply “Now I am less sure./ Things do not stay/ where they are put.”
Wonderful details from the natural world follow as the speaker walks alone outside, not lonely but observant and thoughtful. She asks herself the question again: “What lasts?” The word “sweet” in the following lines adds much to the ability to read the lines that follow: “The turning day, falling water/ over stones, the sweet disorder/ of leaves,/ moons that come and go,/ wings.” Burden’s knowledge of poetry also shows in her echo of Robert Herrick’s lines in “Delight in Disorder”—‘‘A sweet disorder in the dress/ Kindles in clothes a wantonness.…’’
In “Cataracts,” one of the section’s strongest poems, Burden celebrates, ironically, the alterations in vision cataracts make. Instead of one moon in the sky, a friend sees “four fringed/ and blazing moons.” The poet seems to be musing over whether this odd vision may be a “benefit” of aging.
The deaths of friends are dealt with in both “Suicide” and “News of a Death,” as well as in other poems throughout the book. In the former poem, Burden confronts the raw emotions felt by friends who survive a suicide, the wrenching sense of guilt and responsibility, as well as anger: “while we who loved her/ were diminished and angry,/ not understanding why we were not enough,/ why nothing was enough.” Burden is often very effective with her use of closing images for poems. “News of a Death” closes with a shell once picked up on a beach in Ocho Rios. In the shell’s ocean roar, the speaker heard “god’s voice/ and fury.” Burden implies elliptically that this is her response to the friend’s death.
The volume’s second section turns toward the twin subjects of the past and the speaker’s parents. The opening poem is a touching scene of a father and daughter dancing. Burden’s skill is evident here; she skirts sentimentality but remains free of it, using her trademark spare diction and short lines. The poem opens thus:
I danced like Pavlova,
or at the very least,
My soul was not in some ghostly cavity
but fixed securely
in my patent leather feet.
The poems in the second section have a snapshot clarity and a sharp focus. Burden uses particularly well the genre of the photograph poem, one for each parent. “Photograph of My Mother at Eighteen” is less successful than the paired poem for the father, yet its details build to a stunning conclusion. The speaker mentions trying on her mother’s wedding dress years ago—and finding it too small, a situation that seems a bit clichéd. The poem’s closing lines are powerful: “At 91 she almost outlived me./ Her eyes were as bright as finches’./ ‘Let me go,’ she said. It was her last command./ I carry her lightly in my bones.”
Perhaps one reason that “Portrait of My Father at Four” is more successful is the mysteriousness of the father. After “his early leaving” he became nearly a symbol for the writer, or perhaps “something more: mandala,/ ageless as a dreaming god,/ icon/ forever four.” She seems haunted by his absence, seeing both parent and a child she “never saw” (a child of her...
(The entire section is 2015 words.)