In times of stress and challenge, I find myself returning to the work of a handful of poets—writers like Wendell Berry, Carolyn Forché, Aracelis Girmay, W.S. Merwin—poets who do not ignore our planet’s struggles, but instead move through them, transforming worry by turning it into lyric, songs that call us toward our higher selves. Poet Kimberly Burwick is also on my shortlist, though you may not yet be familiar with her work, as she is a writer who shies away from the public spotlight. Burwick has spent her time simply getting the work done, quietly publishing brilliant lyric after brilliant lyric, books that for me become my teachers in the work of difficult reconciliation and earned hope. Or, as poet Kaveh Akbar writes, “Burwick’s singular ear is matched only by her singular spirit.”
Kimberly Burwick’s fifth collection of poems, Brightword, is recently out from Carnegie Mellon University Press.
RGH: Let’s begin with your title. BRIGHTWORD. For most of your readers, that word is an alluring, if strange or new, concept. But lovers of poetry may recognize it as a reference. Can you tell us a bit about where “brightword” comes from and what it means to you?
KB: The title comes directly from a line by Paul Celan: “Near, in the aorta’s-arch, / in the bright blood: / the brightword.” I had been writing a series of poems dealing with my young son’s aortic condition, paying painfully close attention to the articulation of his breath, his body. Oddly enough, he was paying closer, if not meticulous, attention to the environment. Suddenly, he was leading me through the brightness and newness of language in snow, in crushed beetles, dust, sap…in everything. I loved how it all seemed smashed together, which is why I wanted “bright and word” to also be banded as one. Plus, I liked saying it aloud. As if it also had motion. I mean, when you speak it, it sounds like “bightward“. It calmed me down, actually. As if we had some kind of direction: a plan for his heart. A plan for the environment.
RGH: Do you mind sharing with readers the terms of your son’s condition?
KB: Levi—who is now eight years old—has a bicuspid aortic valve (meaning the valve regulating blood flow from the heart has only two leaflets, or cusps, instead of three), which is actually quite common. The problem in his case is that it is causing his ascending aorta to enlarge significantly. It’s sort of like a balloon. Too much pressure upon it and it will burst. But there are no symptoms. There won’t ever be. A doctor once told me, “The first symptom is death.” That’s quite a sentence to metabolize. So we live by numbers, by Z-scores and yearly measurements. There’s a surgical option, but that comes with serious risks as well. There’s medicine that may or may not help. So we let him be a kid, without bubble-wrap. An amazing human being who loves the world more than anyone I’ve known. He keeps us present.
RGH: He keeps us present. That seems really true, in the book I mean. In your collection, Levi seems to be a kind of Virgil, leading you out of the hell of worry about his health and into what Wendell Berry calls “the peace of wild things.” In one poem you write, “I closed my eyes—he could live a scarlet / tanager’s life or keep the wound // nested for years, the boy says, I feel the earth / chose me to be its friend, as if moss was the last / tongue of scripture and scripture / was closer to aster holy, holy, holy—” As I read your book, Levi became my Virgil, too, leading me out of the hell of my worry about climate change. Not erasing or discounting that hell, but teaching me to trust beauty as a genius of the now. This is what you describe above, too: that he was guiding you brightward, onward, toward joy, love, through a devotional attention to the natural world.
KB: I love that phrase: “the peace of wild things.” And your observation about Virgil is dead-on. While it may not have been a conscious “character” choice, Levi was (and still is) very much my Virgil. Even at a pre-language age, he was obsessed with the state of the environment. Grunting toward cigarette butts and litter, growling at us if we didn’t clean up such things in parks, on beaches, etc. But also making us pause in the face of an osprey nest, forcing us into the space of that wonder of prey.
On a language level, the poems came to possess that “devotional attention” you describe. I think that’s why they’re structured the way they are: distilled into the thickest essence of joy, as though it were a vascular thing. It was really important to me that the poems motion toward environmental awe, while the nucleus of the poems contain the very real and often mathematical environmental concerns.
RGH: That’s right. Joy as a vascular possibility, but without ignoring or dismissing its balance: grief. For that reason, for me, the book acts like an accessible, secular liturgy, a book-length poem and prayer to the Earth, for all of us, through the body of your little boy.
You are culturally Jewish. In Judaism, liturgy is a singing intended to be more than the sharing of words; liturgy is עבודה, avodah, an action, a piece of work. It first appears in Genesis 2:15 in the Creation Myth, when God feels sadness (grief, really) for having made a land without anyone to work it. So God’s first desire for humans was as a creature who would work with this new place, care for it, and in so doing express glory. The word used there is עבודה, which also means to worship, to sing.
KB: I love this. Mostly, because I’ve been such a bad Jew my whole life! Growing up culturally Jewish (but super reformed) meant that we’d, you know, go to high holiday services as a family, but it always felt more like a bad episode of Seinfeld. My mom would pass orange Tic Tacs to me during Yom Kippur services, and the kids in temple would make fart jokes when the Rabbi would blow the shofar. Being Jewish meant being able to laugh at inappropriate times. I mean think about it: a room of 250 Jews who haven’t eaten all day—their stomachs making instrumental noises like a bad kindergarten concert—a cacophony of noxious bowel sounds during moments of silence.
Even so, as soon as the Mourner’s Kaddish was spoken in union, we would go from laughing to reverence in 2.5 seconds. In those moments, poetry wasn’t a kind of prayer, it was other-than-prayer. If there are really four kinds of prayers—adoration, contrition, thanksgiving and supplication— directed toward God, poetry for me became something more sheer, gossamer. A way to go toward what’s beyond Earth with permission to come back.
This is where my sense of motherhood comes into play. My mom died when I was seventeen, three weeks before my freshman year of college. I didn’t believe in the Judeo-Christian form of God. I was only equipped with the cultural nuances I just described. So, if I wanted to “see” her I’d have to look closely at nature the way you can look through a winter leaf and see tiny openings in the back of that earth material. When I became a mother, I did the same thing with Levi, in some ways to show him how to find me, or vice-versa, if need be.
RGH: Right. It’s an elegant solution to death, really. To point our beloveds to the blooming world. Now that I think of it, my father, who, as you know, died when I was just 17 years, pointed me to trees. He taught me how to know them by their leaves, how to find a unique happiness in being lost among them. To this day, I feel like I am with him again, when I am in the woods.
It occurs to me now that we are having this conversation during the COVID-19 quarantine, a pandemic I would guess neither your mother nor my father could have imagined in their worst nightmares for us. It’s a strange time. The extreme mitigation measures, the looming economic crisis, the traumatic stress on our healthcare system—such experiences remind me of Jem Bendell’s “Deep Adaptation” theory, which argues that human civilizations will need big structural change to survive the pressures climate change will place upon the global market and society, generally. COVID seems like a kind of preview of this stress, which is one thing for adults, but quite another for our children.
How has this season been for your family, for Levi? What does it feel like to be releasing this book, now?
KB: This makes me think of Richard Powers’ novel, The Overstory. At the start of this important book he writes, “It [the tree] says: Sun and water are questions endlessly worth questioning […] Every piece of earth needs a new way to grip it.” Like your father, those who point us toward trees must be willing to think beyond their own singular ego, and allow the aptitude and love for the environment to have something other than a peripheral place in this world.
These are extraordinary times. I feel so grateful we have wooded trails behind our house to teach us how to brave the isolation, or “social distancing” as they’re calling it. I talked to Levi about this last night before bed, or rather he talked to me about it. Clearly, as any old man with decades of life experience, he said, “I think this is nature’s way of reacting to our disrespect. I mean, how can we be allowed to litter, to pollute, to treat nature badly without it getting angry at us. This virus originated in animals which are a part of nature. Maybe this will make people reconsider how we treat the different species in our world.” To hear an eight-year old boy conceptualize COVID-19 this way is extraordinary. It reminds me that BRIGHTWORD isn’t just a book I wrote about Levi’s heart and his obsession with the environment. It isn’t a project with a conclusive ending. Levi’s teaching me how to live BRIGHTWORD.
Kimberly Burwick was born and raised in Worcester, Massachusetts. Burwick earned her BA in Literature from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and her MFA in Poetry from Antioch University, Los Angeles. She is the author of five books of poetry including her new collection, Brightword (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2019). She teaches at Colby-Sawyer College and lives in Meriden, New Hampshire.
Rebecca Gayle Howell is Poetry Editor for Oxford American and the author of two collections, American Purgatory and Render/An Apocalypse. Among her awards are fellowships from United States Artists, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Carson McCullers Center, as well as a Pushcart Prize. She lives in the same town where she was born, Lexington, Kentucky.