Belmont by Stephen Burt
Graywolf Press, 2013; 93 pgs.
Reviewed by Daniel Heffner
My favorite poems in Stephen Burt’s Belmont are the first poems in the collection and are over too soon. In several later poems, Burt plays with form and rhyme in ways that I don’t think work well (his rhyme schemes sometimes feel like they float on top of the poems instead of working for the poems).
Now that the gripes are out of the way, I have to admit that my experience of the book may have been shaped by expectations from the first few poems in the first section. The poems “Nathan” and “To Subarus” especially resonated as poems of maturation and parenthood that did not come in the form of “impenetrable fuselages of art.” After those poems, I didn’t expect a book that could jump from the WNBA to Victorian paintings to made-up superheroes with ease.
But that’s Belmont. Crisp, effortless imagery and unpretentious poems fill the book’s pages. For a taste, turn to “Belmont Overture (poem of 8 a.m.),” one of the early poems about parenting: “We have learned to carry, everywhere, sunscreen, / and insect repellent, and pretzel sticks, and Aquafor.” Burt overturns this plain, sincere language, this routine and comfortable preparedness, at the end of the poem, suggesting that “once we feel safe, it’s our nature / to say we’re unsatisfied, and pretend to seek more.”
Although it is his exploration of parenthood that interested me most and seemed the primary mover for the book, Burt’s explorations of gender, budding sexuality, and longing provide force and weight to the book as well. “Bad Newz,” one of the many strong poems in the collection, demonstrates Burt’s sharp wit and insight. “Two boys hold guitars / in a basement kitchen, and care / what you think of them,” writes Burt, in a perfect summary of adolescent hope and angst.
In Belmont, I think Burt achieves unpretentious poetry that is nevertheless complex and challenging, with nary a punch line in sight. From “Sunday Afternoon[’s]” simple celebration of a successful naptime to the intricacy of “Prothalamion with Laocoön Simulacrum,” the poems hum with artful wit and energy. Despite its few failings, this book is one I will certainly return to.