canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Simple Master
by Alice Burdick
Pedlar Press, 2002

The Human About Us
by Alice Burdick
BookThug, 2002

review by rob mclennan

Toronto born and bred Alice Burdick continues her forays into the small presses with two concurrent publications: the full-sized poetry collection, Simple Master (Toronto: Pedlar Press) and the chapbook, The Human About Us (Toronto: BookThug, c/o 33 Webb Ave., Toronto M6P 1M4).

After small and smaller publications for some time, including previous chapbooks by Victor Coleman's The Eternal Network (Burdick was also an editor there at the time), Nicky Drumbolis' Letters, and Stuart Ross' Proper Tales Press, Simple Master, edited for the press by Ross, is Burdick's first full-sized collection. It's easy to see the appeal, in poems with sexual and surreal edge, as she glides slipshod through meanings and images, as in the poem "Space Program" - "With the right crutch / at the right time, / you too can insert / your fingers into science / and come up with Answers!" (p 17).

Hardly passive, her pieces are certain poems of uncertainty, and graspin, graceful lunges into sticky places, filled with questions and statements, including "A museum is what you make it. / Ask any missionary." (p 30, "Archives 1"), or "Are you a listless woman who plans / and planes off faith and hope with each false smile?" (p 36, "Giving Chase").

Her long piece in the middle of the book, "Spadina Way", is a localized symphony of noises, with all the coherence of a ghazal, where meaning is less the issue than experience. In thirty-two stanzas, the only thread is the loose-told location of the story, with its urban drawl, cabs and b-girls: "A cold wind blows down Spadina today. Straw baskets / and prisoner-made plastic utensil must be tied down gently but firmly / with shiny pink ribbons, looped into bows. I swear I saw / three rabbis eat spring rolls, with relish." (p 41). Unfortunately, with the length of the piece, the poem seems to wander a bit too much, starting to unravel after a while. Burdick's strength comes in shorter, more focused bits, as in the piece "The Floods": "Wild destroyer of grey skies. / The cloud washer is always here / by me, above me, looking at us." (p 89). 

In poems filled with weird puns and language alterations, such as "Donkey Hotey" (p 43, "Spadina Way") and "Met, uh, four" (p 79, "Polly Ticks"), Burdick's writing can easily be seen as an extension of the Toronto surrealists that began to flourish in the 1980's, writers such as Kevin Connolly, Gary Barwin, Lillian Necakov and Stuart Ross, or even earlier, to David W. McFadden and Victor Coleman. "Let's wear helmets for protection, / and use no lubrication. / It's raining so hard / the blossoms bloom, then boom! hit the cement. / The young and old alike eat rice." (p 81, "Man-Sized Field Goal").

In the chapbook The Human About Us, published by Jay MillAr's BookThug, Burdick's poems change their focus to more human qualities, and are far tighter poems, leading to the conclusion that this is more recent work than Simple Master. "We sound like monkeys, / but we have a lot of the human about us. / It is a strange happiness / when we lie down and hear words" (unpaginated, "The Human About Us"). In these, Burdick's wanderings are less loose, more deliberate, with much stronger lines and breaks, talking of sharing DNA with rats and the sun, and what to do with bad men, with the same threads of weird imagery and doom saying. "The church was built in one day. / But not the bodies." (unpaginated, "How Pleasant It Is"). I like the direction Burdick is going in; unfortunately for Simple Master, the strength and cohesion of The Human About Us only announces the lack of it in her full-sized book, made up of (seeminly) smaller bits. Hopefully her recent move to Halifax will give a second collection that cohesion, perhaps even with poems involving water, ducks and other innocent things, twisted slightly in that lovely Burdick way.

rob mclennan: poet/editor/pub. ... ed. STANZAS mag & side/lines: a new canadian poetics (Insomniac), above/ground press ...coord., Small Press Action Network - Ottawa (SPAN-O) ...snail c/o rr#1 maxville ontario canada k0c 1t0 * 7th coll'n - paper hotel (Broken Jaw Press)







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