Still, by Deborah Burnham

Still cover

Still isn’t: something is always stirring just under the surface. My hands grow colder as I read: winter has returned, “like a mirror/ whose silver dries and drifts across the floor,/ leaving a window on the wall that shows just/ the wall itself…” The stone face on the cover — sad, contemplative, turning green — colors my reading of the poems within. I love sycamores, and there are sycamores on almost every other page, clinging “to patches of uncaring earth/ refusing their own beauty,” their “patchwork green and brown// like a room where the bookshelves have been stripped,/ the curtains taken down.”

In the title poem, an ivy plant cut at the root in autumn holds its dried leaves all winter, “stem and branches stuck on the brick/ like the veins of some huge flat/ animal, shaped like an open hand,” and I am left to imagine how it must sound in “the snapping wind” — and what might be happening in the house within. In the next poem, it’s someone else who has lived through a “year of silent anger,” and in the poem after that, it’s the neighbors who have gotten divorced: a delicate indirection that reminds me almost of Japanese court poetry from the Heian period. Even in the last poem, when Burnham writes about baseball and Art Tatum, that sensibility persists. I rub my finger over a tiny curl at the edge of the page left over from the cutting: the quiet eroticism of a handmade book, its alluring stillness.

Like Humes’ Underground Singing, its mate in the Keystone Chapbook Series for collections by Pennsylvania poets, Still manages to satisfy despite its brevity — even at times to astonish. It’s like the lake in “Learning How to Want,” “that cradles bodies who have forgotten how to sleep.” Being short on sleep myself this morning, I am glad to have found it. I emerge refreshed, as if from a bracing dip.

(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month, with a special focus on Seven Kitchens Press, a Pennsylvania-based publisher of limited-edition chapbooks. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)

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