Book of Short Sentences is Alice Burdick’s fourth book of poetry and her third with Mansfield Press. Like Burdick’s previous offerings, Book of Short Sentences consists mainly of plain language lyric poetry, a surreal half-step removed from reality in its leaps and juxtapositions. My favourite moment of narrative emerges in a (seeming) found poem entitled “Pleasant knowledge (a choral work),” which juxtaposes comment spam with contributions from sweet, lonely, punctuation-adrift internet strangers: “Today, I went to the beachfront with my children. / I found a sea shell and gave it to my four year old daughter / and said ‘You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.’ / She put the shell to her ear and screamed. There was / a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear.”
While Burdick’s unadorned language shines in lines like “Anhinga / with its wings stretched out, snake neck, / in illustration of ancient birds” (“St. Marks Wildlife Refuge”) or “At the end of the hall all the exits / are enjambed” (“Travelling Poem—Pittsburgh,”) for the most part, Book of Short Sentences falls flat. Burdick’s poems are replete with quotidian verbs and adjectives, and too often commit the cardinal sins of abstraction. For example, in “Travelling Poem—Pittsburgh,” she writes, “Sit in stewed thoughts, compressed into veins, / running through the halls and doors of future / assumptions.” At other times, her lines are ever-so-slightly slant cliché: “There’s smoke rising / from the fire under your ass” (“World’s Finest Soap”). Sometimes, they’re both: “The great elaborator / continues, fussing over illuminated books, / manuscripts of divine indulgence. / The proof of the pudding is in the beating, / my liege, honour to just to be sneezed on” (“Regent’s persuasion”).
Many poems span Burdick’s strengths and weaknesses. “Terms and conditions,” for example, contains the existentially pensive “Compost / has a warm take on reason,” as well as the stale SNL snippet “My hope is more cowbell. / For life: more cowbell!” Moreover, the poems in Book of Short Sentences often function as a sort of surrealist riddle—their subjects often evacuated, their settings often absent, they demand we solve for X and Y. Read generously, the book offers or encourages a sort of shared first-person subjectivity. Read less generously, the poem-riddles build a deeper, if vague, impression over time, but despite recurring themes of religion, mortality, consumer culture, and tepid commentary on social media (“I checked to see how many people like me / or don’t, according to a thumbs-up icon” (“Distraction poem”), they never quite build to a satisfying enough climax or payoff.
andrea bennett’s poetry has been published by literary journals across Canada and anthologized by McGraw-Hill Ryerson Press and Best Canadian Poetry 2016. Her debut book of poetry is Canoodlers (Nightwood). She is the Editor-in-Chief of Maisonneuve.
ARC: IT’S A PRETTY LONG MAGAZINE!