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With Aeneas in a Time of Plague by Christopher Bursk
Ragged Sky Press (July 5, 2021)
$15.00. 98 pages
I believe every poet has a good reason why they choose the first and last poem of a collection – reminiscent of inviting guests to your home – there is a greeting and a bon voyage that happens at the threshold. This is how “With Aeneas in a Time of Plague,” by Dr. Christopher Bursk, begins. In the opening poem, At the Cave of the Sibyl of Cumae, Bursk greets us as a six-year-old boy already engaged in life’s struggle and a belief that if he can survive 1st grade he could survive anything (but it is just a foreshadowing of many events to come). He introduces us to the trauma of visiting his mother in hospital and the pain of teenage lost love. The poem is a sneak preview to many more ordeals, like Aeneas, that we are about to plunge into as he informs us with his ending what he’s learned from Vergil (if you think Book VI is bad, wait till you read Book VII). But with Chris, you hear a strong knowing voice that is not pessimism but an embracing of reality – life is difficult!
In the poem, Nor are we fit to force our way across, we are not just with Aeneas in a time of plague, we are with Chris during Covid, and, like Woody Allen, Chris decides to present neurosis cloaked in dark humor to give us his response to the modern day pandemic and a secret confession shared by many – part of us wants to be a martyr and at the same time to be spared suffering. Yet, Chris states an equally popular alternative in A Prayer to Pallas— that in the face of such suffering, including friends who are sick, we don’t know what else to do but lift our voices: “We know music and poetry will not save anyone, but we sing anyway.”
Quid puer Ascanius? is a poem full of such pain. It’s amazing that Chris ends this poem with the line: “Behind us walls so high we could never hope to scale them” because that is exactly what Chris did — he not only scaled formidable walls in his own life but he gave hope to many others, through his example, to keep scaling their own walls.
Chris ends his poem, Radical Heat, with the lines: “Of sad mortality, what men have done and what has been done to them, and what they must do to mourn.” To me Chris, as a gifted poet, has shown us what we must do to mourn — his work can be seen as self-therapy or therapy, by proxy, for all travelers. Chris says that everyone hearkens to pious Aeneas and he refers to men who have been made wise by suffering, but adds that they can still be easily fooled. It feels so autobiographical that we accept and trust Chris as a teacher (as indeed he was).
Born on the same day as Shakespeare, Chris reminds me of Hamlet, his famous soliloquy, “To be or not to be,” (a man greatly suffering with discovery that his mother is sleeping with his uncle and that they have killed his father) so depressed that he contemplates suicide, but chooses action instead. But he has to talk himself into it. And the eloquence of his speech, like the eloquence of Chris’ poetry, is just “the talking cure” needed to keep moving forward.
The poem, Loitering Along the Charles River, bows to the mystery of fate.It seems to me that Chris fully embraces his “fated and unfathomed course,” and forces the reader to think of the difficulties or trauma of our own lives, how we, too, learned to bow to forces we could not change. He talks about ships being set afire by one god or another – an apt description for all of our lives – but then he gives us the life lesson (for me the spiritual dimension of this journey) of being rescued “the only way the old gods knew to save anyone: By turning him or her or it into something other than who they were.” Chris, for all of his realism, for all of his willingness to embrace the shadow side of human nature, is talking about transformation, salvation. This is amazing for a man who can matter-of-fact tell us, “I Knew I’d never be swept off by any god,” and “as if… the heavens ever inclined to show mercy to mortal cries.”
He refuses to sugarcoat our existence. Instead, he takes a bite out of life. In the poem, Heus, etiam mensas consumimus? Chris delivers that exquisite line “and for a brief moment it’s possible to eat the world,” even as he tells us about Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and the scourge of AIDS and Covid-19. How did Chris accomplish this? How did the world not eat him, how was it possible for him to eat the world? Through marriage, fatherhood, Opa-hood, and deep friendship; and a secret that I think he reveals in the poem, What to Read a Friend You Have Loved Since You Were Six? Chris, “meticulously accounting for each dead Latin as if no one is inconsequential.” Indeed, this may be Chris’ greatest legacy – “everyone deserves.” He says it with his poetry and he affirmed it with his life (students, prisoners, the homeless, the mentally ill); and that optimism gets the last word – exactly what he echoes, what he leaves us with in the last poem of the collection:
The Procession to the Palace of King Neptune.
“… because all of us have been raised from the dead
but that doesn’t mean
we don’t need a little help still keeping our balance
on the golden steps
in the marble halls to which Endymion had led us
especially if we were singing
and by now who of us isn’t singing?”
Dr. Chris Bursk went out singing, but much more than that, he let us know we were all part of his song.
Copyright 2021 Steve Nolan
Steve Nolan’s books include Base Camp (Ragged Sky, 2019).