In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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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.
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,
— September 1983
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
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
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.
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 a flashlight shone into a dark place.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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
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
That you’d get older,
to make sense of things
that never made sense
a sort of reward
for living this long,
for making so many mistakes?
Did you think you’d stop
from what should be faced
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
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
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
for what was to come?
— December 1999
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.