Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “Lamentation for the Children,”
by Beverly Burch

Commentary by Susan Cohen, Contributing Editor

I love “Lamentation for the Children” for its lyricism alone—its stunning diction and imagery: the children “with the soft tentacles of their openness” who return to us “like pagans” drawn to “mid-winter light” with their “hearts blown apart or triumph in their throats.”

Gorgeous and wise, the poem can stand alone in time and space, reaching for something essential. Nothing opens us to the possibility of pain like having children. Babies are born vulnerable, and their birth makes us vulnerable as well—to harm that befalls them and also to their adult judgments of us. Thus it will be, always.

Now, what if I told you that the poem was written after a school massacre? In a nation enraged by assaults against women? And what if I suggested, based on the collection in which the poem appears, you imagine it as a persona poem in the voice of Eve? As your high school English teacher might ask—at the risk of making you hate poetry forever—do these contexts change your reading?

The correct answer is yes, of course. Poetry exploits the ambiguity in figurative language in order to create possibilities, often to intentionally mean more than one thing. A collection allows the writer to provide a context that can change or multiply these possible meanings, one reason I love to read poetry books even more than individual poems in journals.

Take a look at the striking final image in “Lamentation for the Children.” What is “the world’s egg” that is breaking? The image is simultaneously one of destruction and of birth, of both violence and continuation. It might represent collective motherhood over all the generations, the cycle of loss that includes losing children to their adulthood. Or, the whole human world with its repetitive suffering at the hands of other humans. Within the context of the collection, the line can be read these ways and more.

Putting a collection together is a separate creative act. An author shuffles and reshuffles poems so they speak to each other in different ways until the book assumes its shape. This is especially true of Latter Days of Eve, Burch’s third book and winner of the John Ciardi Poetry Prize from BkMk Press.

In Latter Days of Eve, Burch, who also writes fiction, creates a narrative trajectory. The main character is a feminist Eve who originally sins by asking questions. Other voices also speak, including the sexually liberated Lilith, the smarmy snake (my favorite), and rarely, Adam. Eve, who has daughters as well as sons in this retelling, flees from Adam after both leave the garden. She finds an existing community of women within an almost post-apocalyptic landscape littered with the modern weapons of war.

In the middle sections, this band of sisters scrapes out an existence, reinventing themselves and their beliefs, rejecting men and patriarchal religions, seeking “…revival / in one another’s arms.”

This world is dystopian, but I don’t want to leave the impression that Burch’s vision here is unrelentingly grim. She can be playful. Lilith is saucy as well as sexy, poking fun at Adam, and lyrical in a beautiful psalm sequence. The snake provides some comic relief. In one of my favorite poems, he addresses Eve as his “Garden girl. My apple wife.” He calls himself her “twisted tongue-and-groove scandalman.” Burch’s poems are luscious to the ear as well as the mind.

“Lamentation for the Children” comes towards the end, in the fifth of six sections, one focused on violence. In the poem that opens this section, Cain is a school shooter who slaughters his classmates. Other poems in the section express fear on behalf of children but especially on behalf of daughters. Cain is also Eve’s child, her murderous son. Our children can inflict pain as well as experience it. They can be victimizers as well as victims, which means we who are no longer children bear some responsibility for this world we helped create for them.

As readers, we bring our own context, as well. Especially to a book involving Adam and Eve because we all know the story as it has been passed down. We may very well have read other modern mythmakers who have ventured into this territory, like Louise Gluck or Gregory Orr.

So, it’s entertaining to read Burch’s version, how she has fully reimagined the way it all went wrong. Eve as the archetypal woman desires a different spirituality as well as a different partner and a different life. In this context, I see in the final image of “Lamentation for the Children” another alternative origin story: the Greek goddess Gaia, who is not just the prototypical mother of humanity but of the sky, the seas, and all life on earth. I think of global warming. The children in “Lamentation for the Children” are walking “like pagans” towards light. Maybe our egg-shaped Earth is breaking, too, because of what we’ve done to her.

Most of the poems in Latter Days of Eve, like this one, work individually. But they beg to be read together, the way Burch envisioned them in the arc of her story, in conversation with each other. They demand to be read as a fine, complete book.

 

 

Contributing Editor Susan Cohen’s most recent book of poems, A Different Wakeful Animal, won the 2015 David Martinson—Meadowhawk Prize from Red Dragonfly Press and can be ordered at Amazon, Red Dragonfly Press, or Small Press Distribution here. She was a newspaper reporter, contributing writer to the Washington Post Magazine, and professor at the University of California Graduate School of Journalism before earning an MFA from Pacific University. Her poems appear widely in journals and anthologies, including TheBloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, and have received numerous honors, including the Rita Dove Poetry Award and the Milton Kessler Poetry Prize.

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