Thursday, May 24, 2007

Review: The Salesman's Shoes

The Salesman’s Shoes: Tanka
James Roderick Burns
copyright 2007

Modern English Tanka Press
Baltimore, MD
Price: $13.95 USD.
ISBN 978-0-6151-4396-5
Trade paperback. 96 pages, 6.00" x 9.00", perfect bound.

Review based on galleyproof. Printed edition may vary.

With his first book of tanka James Roderick Burns has established himself the Willy Loman of verse. Adhering to a strict syllable count of 5-7-5-7-7 for his tanka, he has melded the classical Japanese form with the discontent of a civil servant lost somewhere in the grey concrete of modern Britain. Burns’ work is proof that tanka is not all cherry blossoms and tea.

The civil servant
breaking at nine twenty five
stirs discontentment
into papery coffee
like a dollop of fresh cream.

Anyone who has attended work only because they dread being out of work will relate to Burns’ saga of life in the service lane. Yet even though the majority of the poems record the life of a nameless bureaucrat, the book is dedicated to Jack Burns, and is he who is presumably the salesman that gives the book its title.

In the corridor
the elderly salesman’s shoes
wait despondently
like lizards on a creek bed
for some long-vanished polish.

Such poems are typical of Burns’ eye for the oddity of ordinary detail. Such details first caught my attention and made me ask, “Who is this guy?” when I read it in Modern English Tanka.

Along the roofline
between the gaps in new shingles
down the builder’s chute
and out into the chaos
of the rough yard—an orange.

This is the sort of startling event that we can make sense of if we stop to think about it (the roofer dropped his orange while eating lunch, we presume), but the initial impact is a moment of disorientation as if we had accidentally wandered into a Magritte painting. It looks right, but makes no sense. It requires us to pause and verify our grasp of reality before placing the experience safely in the realm of the normal and harmless.

Moods, fluctuations—
sometimes the stack of mailbags
by the post room door
seems like boiled sweets, other times
dogs in a Chinese market.

Burns isn’t talking about the grocer’s pet pooch here. While such dark comparisons might cross anybody’s mind on occasion, they cross Burns’ mind rather frequently. The surrealistic tinge that colors many of his poems is his signature.

Like a white tiger
or a stone fish on the reef
this dread siren song
from the staff restaurant walls—
ships, rippling seas, escape.

The sea is Burns’ escape route: an escape he never quite takes. He cannot quite bring himself to believe that something better might actually be real. It remains a hazy dream.

Look across to Fife—
beyond the shit-studded wharf,
the filthy tugboat
working this stevedore’s world
lies the faint glimmer of kings.

Yet Burns can find a lyric beauty in even the most wretched of experiences.

On the fresh-laid tarmac
by Welch’s Quality Fish
the cottony hand
of an ear infection lifts
and I hear the bus singing.

Burns’ world is not without its more corporeal pleasures, either.

When after an hour
you appear in low-key style
between the butcher’s
and the green neon bar sign
my heart empties like a vault.

Unfortunately, the 5-7-5-7-7 pattern does not always work. There are a number of poems that are simply too long, and other poems where the poet chose a polysyllabic word for the sake of the count when a shorter one would have served just as well. Case in point, the following poem is one line too long:

Remembrance of sins—
blind man at the T-junction
surveying nothing
as I breeze along in dreams
raises his cane forever.

This and other poems show that Burns has not quite mastered his chosen form; material of this nature needs a deft touch or it becomes plodding. There are times when the reader wishes that the poetic persona would rebel against the dreary world he inhabits or else suffer a bit more grandly. Nonetheless, the book did put me in the mood for dystopian bureaucracy, so I went and ordered Brazil.


M. Kei
Chesapeake Bay
15 April 2007

1 comment:

  1. I read Burns in Modern English Tanka too and saw some poems of his online. Like the reviewer, I think there's some occasionally great imagery in his stuff - the orange above is a good example - but he's not quite got the hang of thinking inside the structure itself. I entirely agree about the 'plodding' and pedestrian quality to a lot of it. I think some of his tanka would be happier in other forms. It would be interesting to see what some more experienced Scottish poets working in form like Don Paterson, Edwin Morgan et al could do with tanka as it's certainly neglected.