Sweet to Burn. Beverly Bunch. Gival Press. Arlington, Virginia, USA. 2004
Not sure I have it exactly right but Sweet to Burn reads like a novel. In this novel there is an exploration of new love, it's growth, a committed relationship, having a child together, aging together and all the pitfalls of committed love. What these poems are really about are the small negotiations that take place between two hearts.
The reason Sweet to Burn reads like a novel is that the connected threads of the call and response poems are intertwined in a such a way that tension is palpable, it's a page turner.
Weeks after, I imagine her a stranger again,
want the jolt of meeting one more time.
Outside, after the bar, stars swung
like a roulette wheel. In the stiff breeze
streets were almost soundless.
Movements of her body, her hands
in the air, reached me like tiny shock waves.
She didn't feel this, checked her watch,
worried what the friends would think.
I had to turn away, too much showed in my face.
I knew her already, some left-behind dream:
it wasn't her gold chain but how it fell
across her throat. Not her green sweater
but how it rose from her waist. Not her long legs
but the way they crossed as she stood.
Not the vein of red in her hair but the heat
it gave off. Not the suede boots, but their rhythm
on the sidewalk as she went back for her things.
Sweet to Burn plays out with a call and response with the two female protagonists given equal voice, later on we even hear from their progeny. It brings no joy to suggest that happy lesbians can fuck up and over their lives as easily as the rest of us.
And that is what transpires. These poems tell the story of two women who meet, fall in love, have a child, drift apart. This isn't complicated stuff, relationships of all kinds are constant mine-fields and Meg and Alice are no different as they negotiate and navigate the pitfalls and pratfalls that make up our lives.
At the Volcano
First weekend of the new year—
a friend and I on vacation,
our lovers left behind—we drive illegally
down a destroyed road
toward the erupting shelf of Kilauea.
At pavement's end we hike a mile by flashlight
over hardened pahoehoe,
ropes and glassy coils of cooled lava.
The polished bowl of Hawaiian sky
splinters with stars. Excitement rises between us,
palpable as reckless kisses.
Close up, the volcano's plume blazes against the sky,
blasts into sea. We can hardly breathe.
Then Maria whispers,
My God, the ground's glowing. Through cracks
in fragile rock a molten river runs, mere inches
beneath us. Our bodies turn molten too.
An agony of minutes, we spread out
for solid ground.
we ride a wash of exhilaration for days,
survivors, not of catastrophe,
but of the free-fall into terror, the surface of disaster.
In our rapt communion, every illicit thing we do,
we understand the risk.
I love the very real emotional tension that Beverly Burch brings to her poems. The drama in each is real but never melodramatic or fraught. This is how relationships work. Bunch has clarity of vision and her characters true loving hearts. But vision isn't the same as protection and sometimes every heart gets bruised.
Beads of light spill through blinds
on your bare shoulder. Your face
is aging into softness, innocent
on the pillow. I still feel some heat, relief
of your touch. We've moved closer again
in sleep. Yesterday we walked the hills, spring
started to open wild iris, lupine. I bought
red gladioli, a vase of flaming tongues.
We'll stay home tonight—you and I.
I'm surprised how I thrived after all,
survived family life like a woodland creature
who prospers in the sun: caught the art
of staying cool, going for days on one deep drink.
And all this time you've shed layers: a madrone,
tawny strips curling off, down to the quick,
satiny limbs. Luxurious to touch and sweet to burn.
These poems confront and challenge, accept and forgive. It's all very much like real life, poetically rendered. I enjoyed Beverly Burch's honed and exact voice, her open heart.
BACK COVER STUFF:
"Novelistic in scope, but packing the emotional intensity of lyric poetry, Beverly Burch's Sweet to Burn
charts the relationship of two distinct and dissimilar spirits who test the boundaries of love and trust over a lifetime...Who thought you could say that about a book of poetry—'I couldn't put it down!'?"
—Elise Klein Healy, Passing
"Sweet to Burn tells the story of two women who meet and make a life together...in starkly realistic and emotional poems, Beverly Burch explores that love with all of its attendant doubts and unexpected moments of grace."
—Kim Addonizio, What is This Thing Called Love
Beverly Burch's work appears in many journals, including North American Review, Southern Poetry Review, Many Mountains Moving, River City, Tar River Poetry, and Poetry International. She also has two non-fiction collections: On Intimate Terms (University of Illinois Press) and Other Women (Columbia University Press). She is a psychotherapist in Oakland, California.
Beverly Burch Poetry Reading