Thursday, April 22, 2010


I've been sifting through the various treasures I plundered (purchased with money) at AWP in the last couple of weeks, which run the spectrum from REALLY HIGH (Michael Chabon's personal phone number and measurements) to SO LOW (James Franco's personal phone number and measurements). Somewhere right up there near the tip-top, quite far indeed from Mr. Franco's very own original signed Green Goblin cape (Scribner bought that too and I'm not jealous, probably!), is Aaron Burch's new little book, HOW TO TAKE YOURSELF APART HOW TO MAKE YOURSELF ANEW. It straddles the line between genres, and also it is fun to read!

Burch runs HOBART (the CAPS, this guy!), the wonderful literary journal and blog. This collection, published by the similarly fabulous and Grade-A Nice Folks at PANK, shows Burch putting his feet into the worlds of prose poetry, flash fiction, and short shorts (the literary kind, not the garment -- Burch was not available for comment regarding hotpants by press time). That's three worlds he's in with just two feet, how does he do it! You be the judge, Justice Metaphor, we're not reviewing my book, here. HOW TO TAKE YOURSELF APART spreads itself out comfortably across three sections. Let's look at them together.

The first, "How to Take Yourself Apart: Instructions" seems to me a group of prose poems on the same titular theme. The book's subtitle, notes and instructions from/for a father, comes into play with the greatest force in this section, as each poem focuses on the idea of a conscious reconstruction of one's identity, a sort of emotional molting, an opening up on the speaker's behalf. We the readers are implicated here, too, as the poems are told in the imperative. The "How to" instructions work well for cohesion's sake -- I'm a sucker for the second-person, anyway (Lorrie Moore, hero!). Take an example of the kind of visceral imagery Burch is working with, here, from the first of the series:

"Gut yourself. Slice first from wrist to elbow fold -- slow and smooth, the sharper the blade the better. Remember the filet knife you gave your dad for Father's Day when you were ten." So, the speaker's taken that knife back from his father in order to transform himself, in a manner of speaking. He's become the father, now. I really love Burch's earnestness here -- throughout all of these poems. He's bursting with emotion (prick the skin and let it out!) at the idea of fatherhood, recognizing that he must become a new version of himself to take on the responsibility, to disassemble and reassemble himself to be better, his joints smoother, his flesh thicker, his heart bigger. It's moving stuff, even for a guy who can't handle the responsibility of paying alimony so his ex-girlfriend can take care of his old Beta fish now that she's left him (how could you take Bubbles, Christine!), let alone think of himself as one day having human children. Yikes!

The next section, "How to Fold Paper Cranes: tales" goes all narrative on you. Flash fiction is something I approach with trepidation, mostly because it's alien to me as a writer (in other words, it's not in my skill set, okay?). I like Burch's stories here, though not as strongly as I liked the sections sandwiching this one. I'm particularly pulled toward "Molting" and "There There," two of the more imagistic, less plot-driven shorts in the collection. In the first, a young girl wants to change her hands into wings, enlisting her friend to help to horrifying effect in the final lines. In the latter, Burch conveys the feeling of palpable longing for a lost love (tell me about it, am I right, internet?) by having his narrator physically ingest the woman he loves: "Or, I fold her as many times as I can, counting. I put her, folded in my mouth and swallow, pushing her down my throat with my index finger, inviting her to stay forever." I'm taking notes!

The final section of the book, "How to Make Yourself Anew: a bestiary," is my favorite by a few leaps and several bounds. More prose poems, each dedicated to a different animal, with Burch instructing the reader how to become the creature at hand. "Caladrius" picks up the earlier themes ingesting others' qualities -- here, taking someone's pain and making it your own, another selfless gesture that evinces Burch's fatherly thoughts -- and would have its readers confront those around us to take "their suffering, their sorrow and grief, heartache and sadness, take it all into your mouth, your beak, and hold tight but careful like a stork carrying a baby." The final image of the poem, touching on the Icarus myth but twisting it anew, got me all choked up (don't look, turn away!). Burch's prose, the contagion of his earnestness, so pure and guileless in its intent, hits with a quiet force. It's something to carry with you. I think his kids will be all right.


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