Parallel Play
Stephen Burt
Graywolf Press, $14 (paper)

In “After Callimachus,” one of four lyrics with that title in his new collection, Parallel Play, Stephen Burt writes, “Bunting I like, but not Olson, nor Bernstein, nor Pound; / I’m tired of flashy long poems / that mean whatever anyone wants them to mean.” Burt’s aversion to long indeterminate poetry suggests the character of his own work—short, resonant lyrics that are well-suited to close reading and that speak their meanings eloquently and directly. The book’s title refers to a transitional phase of development during which children begin to enjoy playing alongside one another before they learn to communicate and cooperate, and many of Burt’s subjects feel an isolation suggestive of this period: “How alone / it is, therefore, to be with someone else.” Often Burt’s speakers find themselves intellectually mature yet emotionally and socially childlike, haunted by feelings of helplessness and vulnerability. In “Like a Wreck,” the adult speaker, yearning for real communication, returns to early-childhood failures such as “flaunting [his] useless knowledge” and wetting his pants at school: “New shoes won’t help. / Neither will asking the right questions . . . / To stay in your present tense, and keep your promise, / We’ll have to clear these girders off you first.” Later in the collection Burt turns his attention from personal tribulations to the larger failures of government and society. In “Canal Park Drive,” Tenth Avenue,” On the ‘A,’ and “The Road Builders,” Burt criticizes America’s unique vision of progress, in which buildings exist to be torn down and built again and our hopes for change are eternally misguided. In “Our History,” he fulminates against the American government for its hypocrisy in claiming to fight terrorists abroad while oppressing its citizens at home: “we’re all too busy fighting evildoers / to notice the stale crusts of bread at the core of our being.” With his clear and accessible voice and his willingness to go to the heart of universal issues, Burt has created a collection of startling immediacy and purpose.