In mid-June I received the heartbreaking news that poet and longtime Sun contributor Chris Bursk had been diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis. On June 21 Chris died in his home, surrounded by his family. He was seventy-eight years old. When I learned of his death, I reread the poems he’d sent us over the last four decades, and I felt the loss of the writer and man who was as sincere and compassionate as he was disarming and irreverent.
Chris and I first crossed paths in the 1970s. Living in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, he’d been having a hard time with his writing, depressed that his poems were getting nothing but rejections. Meanwhile, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I was trying to keep The Sun alive in a dilapidated house with a printing press that kept breaking down and a circulation of five hundred readers.
In 1977 I accepted one of his poems. Chris later told the story of receiving the letter: “I was really struggling in my writing and getting rejection slip after rejection slip. Every night, I’d hitchhike home, and my four-year-old son would say, ‘Guess what, Daddy, bad news again.’ Then one night, he greeted me with a big smile and ‘Good news.’ ”
For forty-three years we continued publishing Chris’s work. His poems were stories — surprisingly intimate, unveiling truths that aren’t easy — and his stories were poems, by turns tender, serious, ironic, joyous, and often deeply sad. He didn’t shy away from the difficult matters of human existence, once telling an interviewer, “Much of my poetry is written out of the grief. The rest is written out of longing.”
Chris wrote sixteen books of poetry, among them The First Inhabitants of Arcadia, The Infatuations and Infidelities of Pronouns, and The Improbable Swervings of Atoms. He won numerous honors, and was celebrated, too, for his humanitarian efforts, which included teaching poetry to prisoners, working in a shelter for abused women, advocating for homeless people, and organizing for farmworkers’ rights.
He taught for fifty years at Bucks County Community College, where he was an enduringly popular professor. His joy in teaching was palpable, and his students spoke of his “radiance” and “genius,” his humor and kindheartedness. His colleagues praised his idealism, empathy, and generosity of spirit.
Those qualities suffuse Chris’s writing, too. The selection that follows — just a small sample of the fifty-plus poems of his that have appeared in The Sun — display the heart and honesty that first drew us to Chris’s work in 1977. A self-described “compulsive writer,” Chris once said, “I do not wait for inspiration. . . . Some days I watch the page until a few words come — and then I find myself inside the world they invite me into.” That world will be missed.
— Sy Safransky, Editor and Founder
The dates that appear after each poem indicate when they were published in The Sun.
The Thing With Feathers
It’s the first thing you hear in the morning, the last you hear at night. In the woods, in the swamps, in the old steeple, in the ruined eaves, over the wreckage of a car your mother drove straight into a wall. The bird won’t stop singing. It is perched in the ashes of a house that burned to the ground. Wherever you move, it’s one hop ahead of you. Tireless as a creek, it’s a tune that will not allow itself to be forgotten. It keeps building and leaving its nest, all chatter, all expectation, water singing to itself in the shadows as well as in the sunlight. That insufferable optimist. No matter how many doors you slam, curses you shout, rocks you throw, it pipes up louder than ever on this very branch of this very tree outside your house — as if stones must be your way of applauding. It was singing the morning you got fired, the day you brought grief to the person you most wanted to protect, the evening when the great cause you’d pledged yourself to failed. It sang while your father was writing his suicide note, the night your dear friend told you he was HIV-positive, the night you could find nothing remaining to believe in, when all you wanted was to be left alone. It sings in places so dark you can’t see into them. It’s out there singing now. — November 2005
My son and I kiss the same woman goodbye. We are meeting thousands in the dark capital. This is the first lie: that I wish to bring peace to anyone beside those with me now in the lamp’s small territory. Soon we’ll be marching down a wide street ending in flags and marble — and dawn, huge and official, turning the white stone glistening. We shade our eyes, march into the dazzle as if light were another kind of government. This is the second lie: that the men inside the building hate the light, have been hurt so deeply they’d have the world hurt. With them are my father, my brother, gentle, considerate men, and though I love them, I rise with others against them. This is the third lie: that we have weapons they don’t — a love for children, a concern for the planet. My boy and I welcome the sun on the backs of our necks. We need it there as we walk into the darkness between buildings. The police wait for us. Soon they’ll raise their arms and bring down the shadows we expect. This is the fourth lie: that these men like to wield the darkness. The fifth lie: that they have chosen to. Mother and wife, the person we love most in the world, has sent instructions: keep away from the violence. This is the sixth lie: that we can. The seventh: that we wish to. We move closer to the damage, lurk in its shade as if hearing the screams, seeing the blood, we might understand. The eighth lie is that we do. We’d thought by walking in great sunlit masses before those who began this war we might end it. We lift the sun in our hands as if to show the men in small groups gathering at the windows there is another government. The ninth lie is that they do not know this, are not grateful like us for free passage on the earth, the sun’s generosity. The tenth lie is the hardest: That we are in no danger from these men, that you are in no danger, my son, from the faithful, the earnest, from friend, brother, or father. — September 1983
The Wing’s Caress
What was it like to live with a man whose wings brushed everything fragile in the house, whose joy swept his daughter’s tea set to the floor, his grandmother’s wedgewood that had survived the fire bombing of Plymouth, a flood, a sea voyage? To be so well-intentionedly awkward was a kind of cruelty. When he embraced his wife, she could feel each shaft rubbing against her, its soft tip trying to press through her clothes till it hurt, these quiverings, these many, separate lives along each quill. She had to breathe through feathers. Where he fondled her there were white scratches, a rawness. When he caressed her, he tried to hold back his strength as if he might draw a barbed thing over her skin so lightly its sharpness wouldn’t be felt. He struggled to tilt the tips down, to make the feathers respect her tender places. He wanted to be gentle with everyone, to move quietly when his children were asleep and the dark had turned the house larger, less crowded, and he could step past a vase or a toy airplane without shattering it. He could look down at his sixteen-year-old, his fourteen-year-old, and they’d not notice his feathers brushing across their faces, and when they were troubled he sought to take them in his arms and say the right things, but they always carried shadows from his embrace, were uneasy all day, feeling the feathers next to them, growing out of their own pores. They had to claw at themselves to be rid of this softness, and at night when they stood naked in the mirror they were surprised to find wings not on their shoulders. He was a man to be careful near especially when happy, trembling with love, rushing across a room of people to greet his children who’d learned to let their limbs go loose in his arms so they’d be only a little marked afterwards. In public each knew not to deny he was their father, but to speak as if it were only a joke they could share with their friends. And his wife? She had learned, too, to turn at the right time, duck her head, pivot, step out of the way, wait till he was tired and frightened of the harm he could do and had folded his wings under him. It was then she caressed his lean, ungainly body, she could love him then, her tongue flickering over the small hairs of his chest, her fingers lingering in the shadows of his groin though soon she’d have to be watchful, again, soon joy would seize him, she’d have to beware. — March 1985
1 12:23 am: I tried to swallow a handful of tacks. 1:54 am: I’ve poured kerosene over myself. Tell me why I shouldn’t light the match. 2:08 am: I’ve got a banana stuck up my rectum. It’s not a joke. Trust me. 4:32 am: I’ve just found my father. He’s hanging from a rafter in the garage, cold to the touch. My mom’s been gone for days. My brother’s still sleeping. I just want to go out the door and keep running. 2 You’re trained to speak slowly, as if all of it were perfectly natural; to treat scrubbing kerosene from your body or pulling a piece of fruit out of your asshole as no different from any of the other nearly impossible tasks life asks of us. So you wait till the young woman’s washed the kerosene from her hair and has come back on the line. You persuade the young man that there are worse fates than getting fruit stuck in your rectum and get him laughing till he’s relaxed enough to let his body solve the problem on its own. For the boy whose father’s hung himself, you make your voice stern, you take his address, you keep him talking till there’s someone at the door. You tell the girl with the tack caught at the back of her throat that she is not to move any more than is necessary. You make your voice as steady as a flashlight shone into a dark place. 3 A boy dresses in his mother’s lingerie, or a girl can’t keep down any of the meals her mother spends so much time cooking. Maybe to eat them would be to subscribe to your mother’s version of what a woman should be? You make everything you say sound like a guess. Maybe you’re not crazy. Maybe we are, the men who are so afraid of trying on something sheer, something so silky the belly and buttocks fall in love with it. Yeah, he laughs. Yes, she says with a sigh that means she didn’t believe there was anyone who had a clue how she felt. How many of us spend our lives traveling back and forth between the harm we inflict and the good we want to do? Between the words we hope will heal and the hurtful words that felt so right we had no intention of taking them back? 4 As soon as I say what I want to do, you’re going to think me a monster, even if it’s your job not to. It’s the very thing I can’t bear to imagine, so it’s all I can imagine. I think of it so often I’m afraid I’ve actually done it. 5 There was no mistaking the voice. It woke up the city every morning with banter, trivia, quizzes that everybody won, weather reports told with a sweet irony, ball scores turned into verse, songs so intelligent in their good cheer it was hard for even a cynic to dismiss them. Turn to 850 on the am dial, and there he’d be, singing so off-key, inviting everyone once again to laugh at themselves no matter what crises they faced that day. The whole metropolitan area had changed diapers and drunk coffee and ridden to work with this man. What they needed to hear in the midst of traffic he had said. How to comfort a man who’d brought comfort to millions? Words can only do so much. 6 A girl’s dressing her dolls and then she’s picking glass out of her hair and a man is telling her to shut up, the very same man who just gave her the dolls. Or maybe a boy gets up the nerve to take a chance on love, as the song says, and a year later he’s so sick no one dares drink from the glass he puts down. A woman, a good mother, is singing her child to sleep and the next day her child is dead. The woman hadn’t been drinking; she’d just happened not to look back, one time only. Something is on fire: that’s how you felt, all day at your teaching job, no matter how many times you phoned home, no matter how annoyed your son got or how patiently your daughter checked the stove, the fuse box, the hair dryer. You could smell the world burning, as if its brakes had been ridden too hard, or there were a dump so huge that no matter where you drove, you couldn’t escape the fumes, the burning plastic. As if the wrong wires had been crossed in the universe, or the whole planet were spinning out of control from all its inhabitants’ wanting too much, the sheer combustible energy of just being alive. What had you ever learned that would help you now? 7 The Mutilator, the Havoc Wreaker, the names you give your regulars so their pain doesn’t swallow you up. After a day of bad jokes and pointless remarks, of taking messages and giving instructions, of teaching what you’ve taught a hundred times before, it’s a relief, on the phone, at 2 am, to say as little as possible, to be nothing more than the shade of a tree, a brook making small comforting sounds under all your callers’ words. Mr. What’s The Use. Ms. Why Shouldn’t I Kill Myself. The voice like someone trying to open a stuck window, or the voice like a car that keeps conking out. Words. Silence. Words. The girl who’s like a bird flinging herself into song and then shutting up as if she’s suddenly thought twice about trusting the air. Think of the burden the air has to bear, all the words broadcast over it, all the high frequencies required for people to say what they need to say, all the silence necessary for them to say it, all that cannot be said. — April 2002
More Reasons You’re Thinking Of Killing Yourself
Because it’s embarrassing how many poems you’ve written about killing yourself. Because you discovered the suicide note your father wrote to your mother. Because the note said, I’m sorry, dearest, our sons didn’t turn out as we hoped. Because your oldest friend just died after you’d been angry with her the whole year for taking only half of every pill prescribed her. Because she wouldn’t let you in her house, where newspapers were piled to the ceiling. Because she was the only person you trusted with your suicide notes disguised as poems; only she didn’t find you morally irresponsible for wanting to kill yourself. Because your father didn’t die from that bottle of pills but drifted off to sleep after you spent a year changing his diapers, sprinkling talcum powder on his buttocks, and sending him into his dreams smelling like a baby. And you’re still hanging on to self-pity because it’s something you’ve always been good at: far easier than grieving. You’d rather do anything than grieve. — October 2015
What Did You Think?
That you’d get older, old enough to make sense of things that never made sense before, clarity a sort of reward for living this long, the recompense for making so many mistakes? Did you think you’d stop walking away from what should be faced and facing what you should walk away from? Did you hope for, if not wisdom, at least patience, if not a highway, at least a trail you could follow? Did you think the rain would fall more understandingly on your face, the wind let you off the hook, a fish that’d fought so long it deserved to sleep now at the pond’s bottom? Did you hope to be so old you’d have worn the world out, won from it begrudging acceptance, to live in this body so long you’d stop yearning for what it couldn’t give, your mind less greedy? That you’d tire of worry, terror? Did you think you deserved better? Better than what? The trees? The stones? The dried-up creek? Did you think you’d be better prepared for what was to come? Think again. — December 1999
Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down
If I’m going to be ashes in a decade or so, why stay up past midnight staring at the television as if it might have a change of heart and put a third-party candidate in office for once or end the war, and, while it was at it, clear up my grandson’s acne? Maybe I should just enjoy the dog’s howling next door. All night it’s been tugging at its chain as if the links might finally get bored with being metal and snap. If I’m going to be incinerated — burnt to a crisp — in roughly 3,650 days, why am I sulking because this morning of all mornings my car tired of doing the same thing it had done the morning before, and because half my class chose not to show up for a lecture that I, their professor, a year from retirement, had hoped would change their entire outlook on comma splices? Once I’m ashes drifting away on the water, what will it matter that years ago I threw up on my senior-prom date, or last week forgot my wife’s sixty-first birthday, or this morning embarrassed my grandson in front of his friends? How do any of us prepare for the future when we’re so busy making a mess of the present? Perhaps this is time’s truest revenge: to make us aware of its passing, every minute of every day. Approximately 5,256,000 minutes from now — give or take a month or year or two — my son is going to stand on a bridge with his children and do something he never thought he’d have to do: let his quirky, annoying, yet lovable (I’d hoped!) father slip through his fingers. That’s my only comfort: I will be ashes so fine they won’t even question the rocks they fall on, the creek that sweeps them away. For once I’ll not embarrass anyone. For once I’ll not have to worry about whether I’m doing something right. I’ll perform the one miracle of my life. — February 2008
“The Thing with Feathers” first appeared in The Ledge.
“Lies” is included in Place of Residence published by Sparrow Press.
Read more by Chris Bursk in our digital archive.