... "I am law" say the trees

of their felled

selves, the pages.

These are remarkable, ambitious poems that refuse, in grief, the easy way out: predictable religious or received knowledge responses to death -- but dive into philosophical and moral "re-definition." What we witness, in syntax, in stress, is the known self coming apart, an old word, "ethic" coming apart. The world is re-made in this bright disassociation: a new look at what lives and dies:

I say "bird" and watch

as the word

makes its way to you.


Stephen Burt
Graywolf Press: 88 pp., $15 paper

Joy is new each time it happens -- and it happens a lot in these poems of Stephen Burt's "Belmont." By nature, poets identify with wonder, with a child's eye, but these poems pull out all the joy-stops. Like Blake on a sugar-high -- what joy-addict could resist the titles of these poems: "A Sock Is Not a Human Being," "Fictitious Girl Raised by Cats," "Little Lament for the Legion of Super-Heroes," "Self-Portrait as Muppet," "Butterfly with Parachute"?

This volume could have used a little editing, there are too many poems here -- but this is nitpicking, clearly, when the reader, midbook, comes upon this:

We meerkats are all smiles

As we stand again on thin feet

Taking a break from the sand

... Scratch that:

Who doesn't love a smiling meerkat? But scratch that: These "excessive" poems are, in fact, serious (though in no way earnest). They work in a manner similar to (but in a very different style from) the poems in "An Ethic." This is a world in which authority figures pull strings but are mostly irrelevant: Burt dismantles all cultural, psychological and literary idée recue pertaining to childhood, identity, gender.

Frank O'Hara's "poet orphan" smiles down on the poems here, though many are inspired by new fatherhood. One epigraph here notes that children can indeed distinguish between real and imaginary worlds -- they just don't see the preference for the real one. In Burt's "Belmont," the real and imaginary flow together harmoniously, in "elliptical" (to use his own term) poems that come at you spinning in indie-pop and "high" culture flights ("Keats to Lady Gaga"). Only once or twice does the vivacity of such literary "hope" dim, as he contemplates an outdated "ethic":

I do not believe that art is a form of religion

an unforgivable selfishness that takes