Advice from the Lights
Stephen Burt
Graywolf Press, $16 (paper)

In the yet-to-be-written history of school supplies, the 1980s was a decisive period. Back-to-school materials had to that point offered little opportunity for individual expression: the static composition book, the stalwart yellow pencil in which deviations of lead softness constituted a classroom crisis, the enduring four-color Bic with the orange or blue barrel. But when it came to so-called presentation folders, a site of self-fashioning that had never evolved beyond the Pee-Chee All Season Portfolio, there were suddenly choices—choices that were, for most, not really choices: kittens or cars, princesses or footballs, unicorns or dinosaurs. We learned to hold our paper under the sign of the gender presentation that peers and parents expected of us, and we often overrode our real preferences to avoid being ostracized. The folders reflected not only how we saw the world but how we performed in it. Many found this nudge toward normativity comfortable or natural, a move closer to the place we were supposed to be headed. Many did not.

For all its insights into trans experience, Advice from the Lights is the brightest and most inviting of Burt’s collections for readers of any, all, and no genders.

The 1980s, the period in which the tween began to be the focus of relentless marketing, is the time and terrain of the majority of the poems in Advice from the Lights, the fourth collection bearing the name of the author Stephen Burt. While Stephen came of age during this time of Velcroed Trapper Keepers and their slick invitations to compulsion, Stephanie Burt, who went full time as a woman in 2017, never got to experience a childhood of “sparkly rainbow crayons” or an adolescence of “glitter pens.” To be subject to ’80s merchandising was to be subject also to its prefab genders and, for Stephen, its troubling lack of choice. Yet in these poems we glimpse only brief rebellions against gender norming—a lip gloss stolen from a drugstore and toenails painted with Liquid Paper only to be scraped clean at parental insistence. Foiled and forced inside, these impulses now feel like lost cathexes lately resumed. What was for Stephen a formative time is for Stephanie a site of longing, of a girlhood that might have led to her present womanhood. Thus the book embraces multiple sides of gendered choice, imagining being clad in both Doc Martens with their grave semiotics of colored laces, and shoes or bracelets made of “jelly.”

Advice from the Lights is the last book to bear the name Stephen and the first one, apart from the 2015 chapbook All-Season Stephanie, written almost entirely by Stephanie. As a continuation of what we know of Stephen’s work, Advice from the Lights offers several sequences extending themes and strategies from previous collections, some as far back as 1999’s Popular Music. A Burt collection, for all its felt variety, is a predictable construction. We can expect a poem with an aerial suspension of information over a location (here “Over Sacramento”), and, near it, a poem surveying an airport’s topography (“Swans at a Pond by JFK Airport”). It will offer a poem bearing the title of an already famous poem (“The Sun Rising”), a paean to a forgotten album (“The Cars’ Greatest Hits”), and a zoo poem that puts one in mind of both Randall Jarrell, a constant presence in Burt’s critical and creative work, and Marianne Moore. It will also offer some loose translations, a lot about leaves, and a bit about pants-wetting.

This time around, we get the ’80s—the actual ’80s and Stephanie’s optative ’80s—in a breathless rush that stops to look into a “Fifth Grade Time Capsule” and to contemplate fast-forwarding cicadas who “want it to be the same thing / to be born and to turn seventeen.” We get a decade’s worth of poems bearing the specific year they survey, from “My 1979” to “My 1987,” all of which are so claimed and individuated until, in the fifth and final section, we have just “2016,” shorn of its “my.” They have the dailiness of James Merrill’s “Days of” poems recounting a specific year, the frustrations of Robert Lowell learning to live in history, and the equipoise of Elizabeth Bishop’s dissolution of binaries in the “watery, dazzling dialectic” of confluent rivers.

One question that may arise for readers of Advice from the Lights is whether Stephen and Stephanie write differently. The answer appears to be no—or at least not very. By contrast with most poems in journals of trans poetics such as Vetch, Napantla, and EOAGH, Burt’s poems have always been more accepting of poetic convention, though Advice from the Lights relies less than her previous collections on high-resolution inherited forms such as the sestina. The voice is calm and sardonic, less given to qualification or enthusiasm than her critical voice, the poems more literal, obsessively open, and chatty. They make prose sense, which is not surprising given that Advice from the Lights is undeniably a poet-critic’s book, even if it wears its heavy erudition with a self-conscious lightness.  

In a political moment such as our current one, in which the urge to critique and the urge to write poems often derive from the same impulse, the newly repopularized term “poet-critic” occludes various revealing kinds of slashie. The highest-profile hyphenates—and the least given to academicism—are the marquee reviewers for major magazines. Less public and more consciously intellectual, there are also poet-scholars, -theorists, -editors, -explicators, -teachers, -explainers, -defenders, -mystics, and -debunkers. If you were to try to break one of these hybrid identities in two, it would easily crack—though the point is that it may not crack at the hyphen. Stephanie is all of these kinds of hybrid. And, to her own cost, she also is our best poet-taxonomist, one who every few years draws a clarifying but controversial circle around a new cluster of otherwise unaffiliated poets. What links all these endeavors, and enables most of them, is the fact that Burt is a deft close reader of poems. She is not a partisan of any period or interpretative project that sees a poem as a symptom of something else. She allows poems their autonomy as bounded, discrete, individual things while also perceiving the variety of forces that act upon their authors.

This position, it would seem, causes a problem for such a transhistorical collection of poems as Advice from the Lights, which among other things marks Burt’s transition, as she prefers to announce it, to “being a full-time lady” with a new name. Of this Burt is completely aware, and offers us several palinodes, literally “back songs,” which demonstrate how a poem can solve the problem of a poet’s own past, of her prior commitments and last utterances. The palinode, designed as it is to reverse, retract, and recant a prior poem, can never erase. It works through admission and emendation, giving the finality of closure, but not the closure of finality. Take “Palinode with Playmobil Figurines,” whose ironically immobile bodies, in all their poignant rigidity, are subject to the imagination of others, an investment that will over time change with new playthings. Time can be measured out in toys, and this palinode revises earlier playful coordinates—the improbably popular “pogs” of the ’90s and the puzzling “Minecraft bricks” of the present. As such poems demonstrate, what might have felt like certainty in the past could end up being an incomplete account. Thus our regrets often don’t concern the said but the unsaid, for which the palinode can never come too late. And Burt, with her variations on themes, is perhaps our greatest poet of having yet more to say. Take “Scarlet, a Betta,” a caudate sonnet—in the manner of Milton’s “On the New Forcers of Conscience”—that sinks into an anticipated conclusion only to turn again and have a tail of six more lines suddenly brush the glass before us.

Though Jarrell’s tutelary influence is evident in Advice from the Lights, as in all Burt’s books, it is joined by that of Callimachus, the Greek-Lybian elegist of the third century BCE, a poet who was also many things at once: scholar, poet, critic, bibliographer. As in Parallel Play, this new collection includes a number of loose translations titled “After Callimachus.” The first one renders a passage in which the poet looks back to advice from “light-bearing Apollo,” who now sounds like Polonius helping Stephanie pack for camp:

                        When I first rated
myself as a writer of some sort,
           wolf-killing, light-bearing Apollo came to me
as a ferret. Stay off crowded trains, he said; never resort
           to volume where contrast will do. Imitate
Erik Satie, or Young Marble Giants. The remedy for anomie
           lies in between the wing-slips of the cicada.
If I can’t be weightless, or glide among twigs, or sate
           myself on dew, then let
                       my verses live that way,
since I feel mired in age, and worse for wear.

Here is a poet looking back to the formative moments when poetry began to offer succor, and a playlist, for the fact of our weightful existence.

Perhaps Callimachus’s greatest influence over Advice from the Lights can be seen in Burt’s adoption of a kind of poetic embodiment that occurs in a poem she never translates. In his sixth epigram, Callimachus gives us a lyric in the voice of a posthumous invertebrate, a bobbing chambered nautilus driven to shore at Ioulis, where it is destined to die and become a bauble. In this mode, the warmest and wittiest in the book, Burt gives us a series of declarative “I am” poems, almost of the sort commonly assigned as an exercise in self-expression to seventh graders. But the selves chronicled here are, like Callimachus’s nautilus, nonhuman or even inanimate. In their variety and empathy, these poems feel natural for a taxonomist, though they all read like a riddle just solved, a riddle frozen at the moment just when it hardens into fable. These isolated beings echo, at least in tone, not only the venerable Anglo-Saxon riddle, but also the alienated, longing voice of John Clare or the self-knowledge of Wallace Stevens’s angel surrounded by paysans. We have the laments of a hermit crab at the mercy of its indifferent overlord, a damasked betta doomed to be named Scarlet, a water strider who has ceased to be amazed at its own feats of balance, a roly-poly bug who, echoing Satan’s non serviam, curls up in response to the crisis of its multiple identities (pill bug, potato bug), and a pair of Apollonian ferrets who in scurrying verse explore their domestication.

For Burt there is resigned uncertainty here, even though “I am,” read with iambic insistence, offers the assurance that leads to cool advice. The word “be,” our most imprecise verb, asserts that mixture of existence and equivalence we call identity. The “advice” of the book’s title seems to originate with the sort of counsel found in framed inspirational posters. Don’t be afraid to show your colors, it seems to say. Express them. And, in a literal way, the book continues the “green apple, toasted coconut, and grape” palette with which Belmont ended, now “beige over chlorophyll” with “green and purple ink” in the ’80s sunlight.

The ’80s Stephanie is, finally, a creation on paper by the Stephanie who has become real. In “Paper Stephanie,” the poet speaks as an accessorizable Tom Tierney paper doll, one who in an act of divine torment worthy of a Holy Sonnet, has “been cut out, / refolded, unfolded, and put back into a folder.” We see this paper substrate throughout these poems: in the economy of gossip and attraction signaled by “a folded-up page at recess,” in the intersecting blue and pink lines of “broad rule writing paper,” and in the “graph paper pictures” that roll smoothly over confining blue crosshairs.

For all its insights into trans experience, Advice from the Lights is the brightest and most inviting of Burt’s collections for readers of any, all, and no genders. “I can remember,” she says, “when I wanted X / more than anything”—and then, solving for it in her chromosomal way, offers us space to “fill in” what we missed in our own childhoods, including possibly a “balloon, pencil lead, trading card, shoelaces, a bow / or not to have to wear a bow.” In this movement from the trivial to the momentously nontrivial, Burt invites us into a counterfactual time capsule, one that prompts us to confront our overridden desires and to imagine what might have happened if choices had been ours, truly ours, to make.  The first thing that came to my mind that I missed in my own ’80s boyhood was a Trapper Keeper with a kitten on it.