A Review of Theresa Burns’ Design

Review by Jennifer Poteet

Terrapin Books, April 2022, 102 pages

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All Is in Bloom: Theresa Burns’ Design

How perfect that Theresa Burns’ debut full-length collection, Design, (Terrapin Books, April 2022) came out at the beginning of spring, when the natural world begins to rouse.

Two epigraphs preface the book, one from Federico Garcia Lorca’s “Somnambule Ballad”: Green, how much I want you green.  Green wind. Green branches. The beginning of that line shows up in the second poem “In March, Cut Back.” At a time of renewal, we start over again before the April rains begin. One has to cut the old stuff back for the cycle of new life to keep going. It seems a cruel task, but a necessary one. The other epigraph is from the poem “Design” by Robert Frost, which inspired the collection’s title.  

What hath the flower to do with being white, Frost asks. His sonnet is dark and questions if the world was created by a benevolent God, if there is a God at all, and considers the possibility that all of earth’s design is at its root malevolent. It’s obvious Burns wonders about this, too.

[Burns’] eyes see beauty where there is also decay and heartache and she doesn’t look away.

Design pays rapt attention to nature, a life cord that loops the poems together deftly and gently. Yet, we’re not simply given beautiful glimpses of landscape. While most of the poems in Design are anchored with birds, trees, and a multitude of flowers, Burns dares to look at and touch subjects as varied and difficult as aging parents, one with Alzheimer’s, family dynamics in the age of Covid, privilege, and the complications of matrimonial love. Her eyes see beauty where there is also decay and heartache and she doesn’t look away. 

The first poem in Design, Someone Threw Down a Wildflower Garden in an Empty Lot in Newark1first published in The New Ohio Review shows us an empty lot transformed into a garden by someone in the community. It’s an anonymous gift from a person who dares to change their perspective and maybe ours, too. I recognize the lot seen from the train as a stop from my own commute. There’s awe and also a challenge to action as we witness the flora blooming among bottles and garbage:  

   Asters, Cosmos, little yellow fists 
   of something. All random and confetti…
   What meadow -in -a -can Samaritan
   got sick of passing the four- acre eyesore
   on the walk to work? Shook pity into blossom.

In the stunning poem “Knights of Columbus,” the speaker’s father is to be lauded at an awards dinner by his fraternal organization that night. Meanwhile, his wife, who has Alzheimer’s, wanders the neighborhood, as he tells it. The speaker of the poem reminds us though, she hadn’t walked/the length of the block in years. Instead of attending the dinner, he is about to go searching for her. He crashes the car while still in the driveway, consumed by anxiety and shame. Burns astonishes with a flower image that jolts to life at the point of accident:

   When my father totaled the white Volvo
   leaving his own driveway,
   the airbag bloomed
   like a calla lily, sparing him 
   the stares of the gathering neighbors.

There are flowers in many of these poems.  Sixteen poems out of 47 by my count. They are juxtaposed against the mundane and what is painful, and the poet makes these moments extraordinary. 

“For the Ladies at ShopRite Who Warn Me I Can’t Leave My Bag There” subtly addresses privilege. The speaker is admonished by a group of fellow shoppers when she leaves her bag unattended and unprotected. The narrator struggles to reply; the close of the poem navigates both self-damning and a kind of rejoice:

   What I want to ask as I pass by, our carts
   heavy with tomatoes tender to the touch….
   Are there grown ones of your own
   you can’t protect, no matter how close you hold them?
   No matter how many warnings?
   May they heed them, those day-dreamers,
   those walking-down-the-street whistlers. 

Meanwhile, an abandoned building beseeches us in “The Language of Empty Storefronts” to acknowledge its former beauty as well as the possibility that it will be beautiful again:  

   …Don’t believe the drab brown
   dress of paper and packaging tape
   they’ve draped me in. Don’t listen
   to the absence of clinking glasses. I am still
   the language a violin speaks when taken
   down from the wall of a music store.

   The scent of sandalwood, notes of cardamom
   as someone locks up for the night.

Burns is brave enough to unearth the dual forces at work in her long marriage. Any of us who have had long-term relationships understand how we sometimes feel unworthy of our partner, especially after an argument.

In “Twenty-Third Winter,” Burns confides: 

  …my own usefulness feels used up, emptied with the cans
   and bottles he never forgets
   to drag to the curb on Tuesday nights… 

and in “Aubade with Rare Bird2first published in West Trestle Review she gushes:

   I worship your irrelevance,
   your occasional oversharing. When we fight, I pull up
   weeds by the root, toss them in a heap
   with the unforgiven. 

Burns’ poems are written with the vigor and enthusiasm of Whitman, whom she has taught to college students for almost two decades. InTeaching Whitman in the 21st Century,” only when she dares to get a little closer to the dirt, my parents ready to nestle there for good,/and comes again to his long lines lapping like tides coming in, receding, then advancing can she strike the match of admiration for Whitman and his love of men in her students. They read the poem “Reconciliation” together, in which Whitman kisses the lips of a dead enemy soldier, as he has kissed the lips of many other soldiers and cared for them as they died.  When they get to reading “Song of Myself,” the speaker notes a progressive shift in her students, love is love and poems bridge. This collection is a terrific ride — a celebration of a life lived with both eyes wide open, by a guide who is not afraid to ask questions — of the world and of herself. 

Listen to Theresa read two poems,
including “Twenty-Third Winter”

1. “Someone Threw Down a Wildflower Garden in an Empty Lot in Newark” first published in The New Ohio Review
2. “Aubade with Rare Bird” first published in West Trade Review

Jennifer Poteet lives in Montclair, New Jersey. Her work appears recently in Mom Egg Review, Thimble Literary Review, Swwim, Paterson Literary Review, The Night Heron Barks, and elsewhere. She is a peer reviewer for the Whale Road Review. Jennifer’s chapbook Sleepwalking Home was published by Dancing Girl Press. Her website is jenniferpoteet.com.

Theresa Burns’ debut collection of poems, Design, was released this spring from Terrapin Books. She is also the author of the chapbook Two Train Town (2017). Her poetry, reviews, and nonfiction have appeared in The New York Times, Prairie Schooner, New Ohio Review, Verse Daily, The Cortland Review, The Night Heron Barks, Plume, and elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize nominee and former book editor, she is the founder of the community-based reading series Watershed Literary Events and teaches writing in and around New York. She lives with her husband and two children in South Orange, New Jersey. 

Design, Terrapin Books

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