Wax, Ian Burnette
Smith/Doorstop, 2018 £5.00
Magic in the Cornfields
Wax kicks off with a poem that had me reeling. ‘I am in love with reversal’, it begins. Then follows an exercise in reversal:
How a room is just a moor
looking the other way, or a moor in a doom mood
I loved the word-play, at once liberated and unsettling, and the lapses into incantation. ‘Gink nus, sun king, pin snip, pools sloop’, for example. What does it mean? I don’t care. Does it matter? Apparently, because just when I thought we were going transrational, the poem makes some sense:
Somewhere, not here, if you pull a dead girl from the river
and hang her on a drying line, you can bring her
back to life.
This and the next poem seem to explore the magic relationship between word and world, the disjunctures, how one can determine the other. ‘Explanation No. 6’ expresses the omnipotence of the child: ‘When I was a child, whatever I named / was.’ But ‘Wax’ counters this with a materialist disavowal of magic, to ‘look always for the string’ (behind the floating banknote), the mechanics behind appearances.
The philosophical content of these first three poems is left behind in the rest of the collection, which plays out against a landscape of ‘shadows of silos’, ‘cornfields lit by tractor light’, the kind of place where people board up ‘the windows of a house / before a storm’—‘Rural America’, as the back cover succinctly puts it.
At the same time, there are plentiful references to representations of the American West in the cultural imagination, especially in poems like ‘High Noon’ and ‘A Boy Is a Gun’. These are, in many ways, coming of age pieces about the shaping of a sensibility, drawing on both lived and cultural experience to tell the story of where ‘the poet’ comes from — world and word.
And I wonder if, in going backwards, biographically speaking, the poet is trying to pull his own ‘dead girl’ up from the river and breathe life into her through the magic of words.