Book review of Death Obscura by Victoria Chang

Book review of Death Obscura
by Victoria Chang and posted at On The Seawall.
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The second book I want to recommend is Death Obscura by Los Angeles-based poet Rick Bursky. At first glimpse, Bursky’s poems might seem deceptively simple, colloquial, even a bit light, to use a word that would be a slap to the face in any poetry workshop. But any careful reader who digs a little deeper and continues reading Bursky’s poems will discover that his poems are anything but light. Bursky’s poems use levity as a way to manage the darker aspects of life, of living. His poems are simultaneously funny and sad—if there was a way to bottle a stand-up comedian and a mortician, Bursky would be it. The poems in Death Obscura are death-obsessed, as in “Cardiology” where the poet begins with humor and ends much differently:

Seven years ago I bought a pair of crutches,
just in case. Each Sunday morning I practiced
walking with them, bent my left leg back
from the knee as if the ankle had been mangled
while stepping onto an escalator....
Twice each week the phone rings
at three in the morning. I never answer.
Someone is practicing sad news, I’m certain.
An oak will one day grow from my heart.
No amount of practice can prepare you
for the first push through dirt.

Bursky’s poems also evoke a sense of longing, whether romantic or not. The speakers in Death Obscura are always waiting for something to happen, longing for a different life without loneliness, as in “The Waiting”:
Standing in front of the toilet urinating,
I lowered my head and my glasses fell
into the yellowed water. So much for beauty.
There are parts of ourselves we don’t want to touch,
stories told in small gestures.
Using the tips of two fingers I fished them out,
let them soak in a sink of cold water.
That was over a year ago.
The past smells like a lost dog.
The past is so damned tired,
following us around.
The past can be forgotten
for a while, like you can forget
you’re wearing glasses …

Bursky’s poems may have thematic preferences across Death Obscura, but he never dwells or lingers too long within his poems, especially within poems that focus on love and relationships. The reader only receives small scenes and we are left puzzled, in the same way the speaker is often left puzzled. Bursky captures the mysteriousness of love through these small glimpses, as in “Heroine in Repose”, here in its entirety:

I wasn’t sure if she kissed me
or simply used her lips
to push my face away. Yes,
the moist warmth was enjoyable,
but when my head was forced
back over the top of the sofa
the intention grayed.

Earlier that day I planned
to quit my job and pursue
a career writing romantic novels
that would be confused as memoirs.
But if I couldn’t distinguish
between a kiss and a push
what chance do I have
or writing romantic novels
that would be confused as memoirs?

After the kiss, and I prefer
to think it was a kiss,
she sank back into the pillows
and watched me
out of the corner of her eye.

In the end, what I love about Rick Bursky’s poems is his ability to take life seriously, yet to poke fun at himself and his travails. So many poets focus solely on the dark (I am quite familiar with that terrain myself). And rarely do poets inject humor into their poems, a task that poets seem to know is fraught with danger and failure. Bursky uses humor successfully to counter the darkness in his poems, in the same way that comedians use humor to break discomfort. He is a master of this and poetry is fortunate to have him.

[Death Obscura by Rick Bursky. Published November 16, 2011. 88 pages, $14.95 paperback]