Book Review: The Snowboy (Mark Burnhope)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

If the title of Mark Burnhope's collection of poetry The Snowboy ( Salt, 2011) does not make a reader immediately think of Wallace Stevens' "The Snowman," the epigraph that the author uses at the beginning of the book makes sure that the connection is drawn. The line the author chooses, "For the listener, who listens in the snow," is both a sort of dedication and a kind of warning, implicitly relying on the famous ending of the poem that follows these lines is "And nothing himself, beholds/ the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." Is the poet speaking of himself or chiding the reader?

An immediate response is to turn to Burnhope's own title poem, located in the middle of the book, to see what the connection might be. The first word of "The Snowboy" is an emphatic No. Whether this is a rejection or not of Stevens makes for an interesting entrance to the poem and is followed by the lines:

What to make
of what's becoming
nothing more than a mound of snow.

Since the final stanza says that we see ourselves in the pool of melted water the snowboy has become, this clearly is no more a literal snowman or snowboy than Stevens'. And, again, Burnhope's:

coals that lent him sight, a smile
and buttons have been removed
by the fingernail-wind, hands fanned, still
scraping blades against the barn

are reminiscent of Stevens':

which is the sound of the land
full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

One interesting word here is "lent." Although, it certainly a state of temporariness, might it also imply a lender? Is that the reason for Burnhope's "No." No questions are solved here, but these are thoughts— this is a metaphor emdash; to keep in mind while reading the other poems in the book.

The side trip that Burnhope forces the reader to take in discovering what is implied in the title is the precursor to other shifts they will need to make in the book. Moving back to the table of contents, two other sets of connections that the reader will have to make in reading The Snowboy are visible. The first is the number of characters who inhabit the margins of society — Pinocchio, Queequeg, Quasimodo, and Jonah. The second is the number of references to religion.

The first of these groups — the marginal characters — are all literary references. It is one of the kindnesses of Burnhope's poetry that he invokes not obscure post-modern personalities or references to practitioners of the Kabal, but to figures that a Billy Collins reader would feel quite at home with. Burnhope recognizes that it is not the figure you choose but what you do with it that avoids cliché, and what Burnhope does is to describe them from a disabilities perspective.

Burnhope himself is a wheel chair user. While no one is going to scan the titles of his poems and label him a niche poet, neither does the poet pull an FDR on the reader. As he rolls through the poems he inhabits, his wheelchair is there, causally at times as in "Ideal Bed" or "The House, The Church and Fisherman's Walk" and at the center in other poems like "Dream Interverteberation" and "Wheelchair, Recast a as Site of Special Pastoral Interest."

The poem "To My Familiar, Queequeq" begins with the line "I too am tattooed." Whether the reader takes the speaker to be Ishmael or the author himself, the alliance is between two people who are in some way marked by society and as a result are outcasts. If contemporary tattoos function as pop cultural capital, their origin going back to Cane is a way of setting people aside. The speaker says:

I wanted to compare
tattoos, remove tops
and trousers, and trace;

laugh at lines
blown out from excess
force by the hand, and time,

designs that lighten, slowly,
like flints in the sea.
For a while, Quee, we'd find

a world where the whale
is not white or dreadful.

A companion poem, "To My Best Kept, Quasimodo" also begins with identification

Like you, I have one eye
which is good, my other
a glossy, pussed growth,
a tumour.

Had Quasimodo lived in the United States, he would have ended up in a Barnum freak show. If today, that venue is more likely to be an examination room in a teaching hospital,: people with disabilities are still in many ways marked. This marking has not just social implications, but theological ones as well. While these implications were assumed in "To My Familiar, Queequeg" in "To My Best Kept, Quasimodo" they are spelled out, as the poem continues, "I would pluck it out,
say, I have sinned, Father —"lines that mirror the traditional first lines a Catholic traditionally uttered upon going into confession, "Bless me father for I have sinned."

Many disabilities scholars have pointed out that Western literature is replete with references to characters with disabilities whose disabilities are the result or the representation of having transgressed against God. They are marked. It is God's payback.

In some countries, the stigma placed upon disabilities is put strictly on the church. Nigerian poet Urdeen writes:

so they came in search of me
someone with a difference
a handicap they thought I have
someone to test their faith upon
someone to put the church on the map

By contrast, poets in the United States who identify with the disabilities community tend to take a different tact: avoidance. The rationale is that disability (as differentiated from impairment) is a social construction, and allowing disability to be either a test or punishment God has placed upon the individual is to let society at large avoid responsibility to for having to do anything about it.

It is to Burnhope's credit that he neither avoids religious language and imagery, nor surrender to simplistic answers. What he does is to take Boscombe, the beach town setting where many of his poems take place and turn it into a place where Biblical images still infiltrate the present. Two poems in particular give some insight into Burhope's view of religion's specific impact upon disability and on the role of religion generally.

In "The House, The Church and Fisherman's Walk" Burnhope deals with the relationship between disability and organized religion directly. Though he may be marked by his wheelchair, the town (presumably Boscombe) is non-discriminatory seeing "no difference between a house / and hospital save for size, number of beds / and cadaver count."

The poem follows Burnhope down the walk past an abandoned house:

The house is seated at a church's right.
A beech bows over its fence,
weeps against that Beloved Body;
one day bites a thumb at the sad façade,
strokes its neck the next:
Ah! Dialogue, change

As the poet sees it, despite the difference in their approaches — the Evangelicals try to exorcize sin from him and the Catholics who want to help him carry his cross — his disability is still viewed as a trial, a burden, some price he is paying. Regardless of which brand of organized religion he encounters:

The crux
of every prayer is much the same:
deliver me from the evil one,
whether he be damnation or just
a fortnight of light depression.

If the town is non-discriminatory, religion still sets him aside as different. Past the religious debris of churchgoers, he continues down the walk where the town lights "like him", though he is still an object of charity to prosperous residents who toss scraps to him and the swans alike. Finally he reaches the ocean where "fishermen cast/ without conditions or crutches."

Burnhope ends the poem and the book, with a surprising image of inversion in which we are all just members of the same ward.

All aboard the sprawling liquid ward
as Nurse Night flaps out a fitted sheet
they sleep on the tremulous sea; thusly
all their careful catches, care of a strain
of events too arcane to see, come to me.

It is a kind of equality and it is one that is brought about not by religion or even by the townspeople, though they may try, but ultimately by nature itself.

A second poem addressing religion even more theologically is "The Letting Tree," the books longest poem and one it its most interesting. Though it might not seem so in the books first few poems Burnhope, like Frost or Masters is a poet of place. As readers make their way through the book they begin to build up an image of the sea town of Boscombe on the south coast of England. (For American readers, this sense of place is heightened by a British expressions or slang they'd be unlikely to hear in their own communities.) Just as historical literary characters and language share the present with the poet in work-a-day Boscombe, so to do religious ones. "The House, The Church and the Fisherman's Walk" invoked Shakespearean language ('bites a thumb") and New Testament references ("fisherman cast"). In "The Letting Tree" Burnhope brings this imagery front and center.

Outside an urban café in Boscombe:

Frozen breeze crosses palm
and trunk; talks terracotta planter
into trembling, and the fronds
into letting free the legend
of Zacchaeus: took Jericho
Sycamore-fig branches
and turned to catch his call:

Climb down. Let us
go to your home for breakfast.

As in Luke's tale, Jesus enters into Zacchaeus home, from which Burnhope has them traveling down through time's kitchen into the Middle Ages, the Enlightenment and into the thick of today's world where Jesus tell Zach, he'll "place some orders with your company." Unable to handle the contemporary world, Zaccchaeus wants to return to that tree in which he could hide.

He tears back the outer bark,
falls into the phloem,
becomes cambium cell layer,
spins sapwood rings around his thumb,
dies in the heartwood's hold

One way of reading "The Letting Tree" is to say that the call of religion (or at least Christianity) is one that mandates we be in the world, not hiding or retreating, that religion is to be found not in churches or retreats to the past but in the hurly burly of everyday life.

Moreover, Burnhope continues,

so whenever I cross his palm and heckle:

Climb down. Let us break this
buckwheat loaf for breakfast, down
this wine before the bottle's thrown

he has no defences,

In this second, contemporary calling it is interesting that the poet places the speaker of the poem in the place of Christ. Is Burnhope simply repeating the Luke's theme that in serving other human beings we are serving God, or is he taking it a step further by identifying Christ with Everyman?

In his title poem, Burnhope asked what one was to make of our lives as human beings, lives that are slowly becoming no more than a mound of snow. He comes up with no definite answers. In the end, nature will win out and we will fare no better than the snow man. What counts, though, is what happens before the melting. What defines Stevens' snowman as a snowman is not his body, but his way of seeing the world. For Burnhope, this view seems to hold true as well. Western religion from the Old Testament onward has seen difference as a mark of distance from God, whether as punishment for past deeds or as something to be overcome. Unfortunately, today's organized religion and its doctrines, as "The Snow Boy" depicts them merely promulgate that view. Poems like "The Letting Tree" offer the chance to look from another perspective

To say that Burnhope is concerned with themes of disability and religion is not to overlook his concern for the poem as poem. One poem that demonstrates and, to some extent summarizes the skills Burnhope concerns himself with is "The Serpentine Verses." Right from the title Burnhope is relying on associations the reader is likely to be making. Two of the most obvious are the serpent in the garden of Eden and D. h. Lawrence's "The Snake": twin lines of knowledge (evil) and sexuality. The use of "verses" in the title also sends out an alert. Since verse tends to be used as a pejorative term when referring to poetry, Burnhope's use of it in reference to his own work really only makes sense if he pointing our attention elsewhere. The Bible is the most likely candidate, but what about the Gnostic gospels or Rushdie's Satanic Verses? Burnhope packs a lot of possibility into just a title.

The first stanza of the poem illustrates several of Burnhope's favorite devices:

 shuffle entirely free, immortal coil

                      through the chimney shaft

                                breeze, blow briskly in

                      by the redbrick's pores

The most readily apparent is his interest in the shape of a poem. Here the serpentine form of the snake is reflecting in the undulating positions of the poems' lines. The serpent's movement is suggested further by the alliterative use of language. The b's and f's in particular wind their way through each stanza of the poem. As in poems previously discussed, Burnhope also slides in lines that resonate with the work of other poets. In this case, "shuffle entirely free, immortal coil" plays against a phrase in Hamlet's famous to be or not to be soliloquy: "what dreams may come when we have shuffled off the mortal coil." One could argue even further that Burnhope's use of monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon words and the frequent use of line patterns reminiscent of caesura are purposely employed to reach back to the poetry of the old sceops to a time when the world had a more pagan feel to it. Though "The Serpentines Verses" compresses many of the author's techniques into a single poem, these same techniques are evident throughout the book, contributing greatly to the enjoyment of reading it.

The Snowboy is Mark Burnhope's first collection of poetry, and it is an impressive debut indeed. The poems frequently have a contemporary, experimental feel, yet in both subtle and overt ways link themselves to the poets and poetry of the past. Because of this they appeal both to readers without any particular literary background and those who look for the nuances provided by the spectrum of literary associations the poems provide. Perhaps even more important for the reader of disability literature, The Snowboy provides a self-assured poetic voice. While not a manifesto by any standards, it advocates for a greater examination of the role disability plays in society, religion and literature.