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Friday, July 14, 2017

Book Review: Wayne F. Burke A LARK UP THE NOSE OF TIME (BareBackPress, Hamilton, 2017) 92 pages

A Lark Up the Nose of Time is Vermont based writer Wayne F. Burke's fourth collection poetry published by BareBackPress. It follows Words That Burn (2013), Dickhead (2015) and Knuckle Sandwiches (2016). A fifth volume, tentatively entitled Poems From The Planet Crouton, will shortly be forthcoming. Some of the poems have previously appeared in fine small press publications such as Meat For Tea, The Rat’s Ass Review, Zombie Logic Review, The Bees Are Dead and dozens of others.

There are 75 poems in this collection which are divided into six sections. The poems are typically confessional & 20-30 lines in length and use a rush of anecdotal detail in simple, highly accessible language. The words hug the left margin and cascade down the page without the relief of stanzas. The narrative, free verse poems are reminiscent of Bukowski but Burke puts his own particular spin on the humbling tales of a flawed man.

In the interview which follows at the end of this review, Burke was asked if he makes any shit up. He shrewdly replies, “On rare occasions, yea, but more in the way of exaggeration than lies. I mean, the poem is not a transcription of so-called REAL life, but an act of creation. It can go wherever the mind takes it. I am not writing autobiography though I use my life experiences as a sort of foundation or template or buoy maybe, something to anchor the imaginary stuff to.”

After graduating from college in the late 1970s, Burke has worked in a wide variety of jobs, “Jobs,” he cynically quips, “that someone in America with a degree in liberal arts is deemed qualified for: truck driver, laborer, janitor, dishwasher, cook, moving man, machine shop operator, store clerk, substitute teacher, security guard, oil rigger, census taker, gas station attendant and others.” More recently, Burke has worked as a Nurses Assistant and after returning to college in his 50s, as a higher paid Practical Nurse.

His wide life experiences have enabled Burke to write insightfully about the human condition but he remarks that we all are unique and have a story to tell: “The work has given me subjects and/ or anecdotes to write. It is part of my story—everyone has a story. It is what we have—all we have—that is essentially our own.”

Burke stresses that he wasn’t on his death bed when he began to get it all down, “My heart operation at 58 did not prompt me to start writing again—I had started about a year before with a do or die attitude, that it was time, now or never…I finally found the FORM, poetry, and exploited it."

The poems appear to be quickly and urgently written which give the collection a raw, spontaneous edge. But in an email this morning, Burke expressed clearly the pain-staking difficulty of his writing process, "The first draft of pieces may be 'quick' but my god the sometimes torturous struggle to get the thing into shape--get it to a point where it can easily be read--where the music of the language is just so--that is never a 'quick' process. Screw, chip, clip, prune, cut, smooth, flatten...Can go on & on. Freakin' forever."

To give you a heads-up about what’s in the book, here’s a brief overview of the 6 sections:


These poems take us back to Burke’s childhood in the late 1950s and 1960s, to a time when kids were allowed to play in trees (“Bomber”) and take crazy, sometimes deadly risks (“Disgust”, “Kamikaze”), when ice creams cost a dime (“10 cents”), when bullying (“Posse”), overt racism (“Schwartzie”) and pedophilia (“Bill”) were rampant, when people paid lip service to religion (“Holy Moly”) and were sexually naïve (“Babies”), when fists could be meted out to resolve neighbourhood disputes (“Fat Bastard”) & inter-gang rivalries (“Sphincter”) , a time when kids played impromptu ball games (“Ballplayer”) and when mentally sick people were placed in institutions rather than being left to fend for themselves on the streets (“Looney Bin”).

Burke writes about his childhood with great affection and without passing judgment on the people or events. He simply records what he saw & can recall- piling on the images, with the occasional use of direct speech to add to the poem’s authenticity.

The poem “Bill” showcases Burke’s use of understatement and his grim verbal irony from this period:


stepped off of the town bus one day
and onto the field
where we played football
and told us his name was “Bill”
and that he had watched us
from the bus
and that
if we would let him
he would be our manager
and try and arrange games
between us and teams from
other towns…
He wore glasses and had a long
horse-face plus white shirt and
black slacks on a bowling-pin shaped
he came by every day afterward
to watch us;
he said he would be our score-keeper
and that he would write stories about us
and have the stories published in the
At the dinner table my Uncle
asked about Bill
and I told him what Bill had said
he would do for us
and the next day my Uncle
showed up at the field
and told Bill to get lost and to stay
the hell away from us
and me and the other kids
did not know why my Uncle
was so upset or
why he had told Bill to go away
we all agreed,
Bill was a nice guy
A very very nice guy.

(reprinted with the permission of the poet)


These poems cover Burke’s early working life as a house painter (“Brad”), fry cook (“Vane”), laborer (“Nips”) and a carpenter’s assistant (“Roy”). These are essentially portrait poems of the men who have employed the young adult Burke. The speaker, presumably Burke, is usually drunk or hungover, projectile vomiting, getting stopped by the cops or getting the crap beaten out of him.

The poem “Lights” is characteristic of Burke’s gritty, detached, matter-of-fact style:


We got stopped by cops
in a show of blue light
and a cop told my cousin
“step out of the car”
and made him walk a straight line
touch his toes
then his nose
and my cousin,
as shit-faced as he was,
somehow passed the tests
and we drove off
to the club
where we picked-up two girls
and then drove up to the mountain top
with them
and parked;
the wind howled around the car
the lights of the town dully glowed
in the valley below;
my cousin and his girl went for a walk.
My girl had bow-legs
and a pigtail;
she unzipped my pants
then pulled hers off
then straddled me
as I lay back,
then she sat and guided me
inside of her and
then moved up and down
and lifted off
as I shot
and the wind wailed
and the car rocked
and down below the lights winked
on & off.

(reprinted with the permission of the poet)


The catchy title of the collection derives from the opening poem of this section. It is a road trip poem which describes a journey taken by Burke and his two friends Ron & Steve from Kansas, to Saint Louis and Daytona and eventually to Ottawa.

This section is perhaps the best in the collection as it offers more considered adult perspectives on life- the misunderstandings, the stuffed-up relationships between people, the physical pain, the terrible loneliness, the boredom, the loss of direction and purpose in life.

The poem “Fall” uses the concept of pathetic fallacy in an extended metaphor of swirling leaves to describe Burke’s mental unrest and his brooding sense of procrastination: 


trying to decide what to do with myself
I sit
on a park bench
in the sunlight
to think
and I get caught
in whirlwinds
of yellow and rust-colored leaves
rushing from one side of the park
to the other
like a mob storming a Bastille
but then
lying down just as quickly,
until they get up
and renew the rush
only in a different direction
obviously confused
a tornado of them whirls into the road
and is run through by a truck
and scattered;
they are a spiritual force
though make a clatter on the sidewalk
like tiny horses’ hooves
like the clouds
across the sky,
not sure where they are going

(reprinted with the permission of the poet)


This is a series of 9 haiku poems. My favourite is the macabre:

my jacket
hung by the neck
until Spring


Here you’ll find four anti-Thump poems which reflect Burke’s alarm about “the joke” of a president America has elected, “who loathes his own constituents/ and is using the dumb-fucks/ to gain power/ in order/ to glorify his ego” (“Herr Trumpf”).


This last section is an eclectic mix of poems which include a portrait poem about a high school buddy (“Lou 1954-2016”), advice about life (“Advice”) and his family’s recollections of what Burke was like as a toddler (“Baby”).

Yet after you’ve read this section a number of times, you get the impression that these poems are meditations on the general malaise and hollowness of contemporary living. They chart Burke’s underlying discontentment with life, of feeling trapped by the fakeness of things (“Oasis”), where the allure of alcohol (“Drink?”), fast cars (“108 mph”) and women (“Knock Knock”) has largely waned. Burke sees himself as a “dumbfuck” (“Dumbfucks”) and driving in his car he feels a brooding, unshakable sense of ennui (“Straight”).

In the last poem in the collection “Spirit”, this unbearable sense of hopelessness and dread & loneliness briefly lifts:


the spirit flew in
through the window
and down my
I love it,
it tells me
that there is hope
that there is a future—
but the night, I said to the spirit
it is so dark,
and I am all alone;
and the spirit said that
it knows all about
the dark and
the lone,
and does not think much
of either.

(reprinted with the permission of the poet)

 As in his earlier work DICKHEAD, this is a varied collection of first person confessional poems. The book is structured roughly in terms of the chronological age in which Burke appears in them. The poems are easy to read and you have to admire Burke’s tenacity in getting this shit down. My only criticism is that although I do not require glasses to read, I found the font size (9) a tad small for my liking.


I recently asked Burke a shitload of questions about his writing. The following is what he provided- the use of paragraphing is mine:

I started to try and write a poem when I was nineteen and at my 3rd college. My college roommate was the first guy I ever met who admitted to writing poetry. It was though his influence that I started to write verse--it was through him that I learned what I know of writing poetry, not from a professor or class I took though there was a high school English teacher and a professor at the first college I went to who were very encouraging. The English teacher is one of the dedicatees (oh boy) of A LARK. I did not write anything that I or anyone else recognised as poetry for four or five years. After I graduated from college, my 4th, I went to work and poetry got lost in the shuffle. Not completely forgotten, but kept on a back burner.

I started the series of jobs--I have written of--truck diver, labourer, janitor, dishwasher, cook, moving man, machine shop operator, store clerk, substitute school teacher, security guard, roughneck (worked on an oil rig), census taker, gas station attendant, and some others--orange picker, bartender--done before I graduated college. Jobs that someone in America with a degree in liberal arts is deemed qualified for. Six years ago, after working for 9 years as an LNA (Licensed Nurses Assistant), I went back to college and got a license to work as an LPN (Licensed Practical Nurse) an occupation I am still practicing. Whew. That's a long list. Makes me tired thinking of it. The work has given me subjects or/and anecdotes to write. It is part of my story--everyone has a story. It is what we have--all we have--that is essentially our own. In my late 50s, and occasionally before, I started to put down, as I understood it, MY story.

Do I make things up? On rare occasions, yea, but more in the way of exaggerations than lies. I mean, the poem is not a transcription of so-called REAL life, but an act of creation. It can go wherever the mind takes it. I am not writing autobiography though I use my life experiences as a sort of foundation or template or buoy maybe, something to anchor the imaginary stuff to. I feel I am getting off track, if I was ever on one, and have no business explaining my work. I am mystified myself about how it comes out, knowing only that it is work and persistence, writing something everyday, not a poem, but something, and applying myself with a will--I am going to have to read the thing, as well as whomever, when it, the thing, comes out in print.

My heart operation at 58 did not prompt me to start writing again--I had started about a year before with a do or die attitude, that it was time, now or never--I had figured myself for a prose writer and scholar and critic but was only 2nd or 3rd rate critic, scholar, prose writer... I finally found the FORM, poetry and exploited it. Previous to late 50's I was an artist but without a form. I did publish 2 books of criticism, essays, short stories, and book reviews (which I continue to write), because that was my idea of what I was supposed to do as a sort of "gentleman of literature" to which I aspired, and still do to a limited extent. Someone like Ford Madox Ford or W.D. Howells or even Edmund Wilson, who were arbiters of taste and could kick out reviews, essays, novels, what-have-you, at a moment's notice... Oh boy, I've really gone off the track now. Unsure how to get back on... Some guy using a chainsaw outside my window, really ripping into the wood...

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