Book Review: Species (Mark Burnhope)
Reviewed by Michael Northen
For some poets, each book is a new project, an experiment from which they flit on lepidotera-like to reinvent themselves in another pursuit. Others, poets are defined by the slow accumulation of work in which each succeeding book builds upon and enlarges the others. Mark Burnhope is the latter type of poet. In his debut book The Snowboy, Burnhope established two things, his concern for people on the margins of society — specifically, those with physical disabilities — and his eagerness to take on religious themes. Since the appearance of the book, Burnhope has continued to write and has used his poetry to establish himself as an activist, most notably in founding "Poets Against Atos," a group protesting the current means of governmental assessment of disability and "fitness to work" in Great Britain. In Species (Nine Arches Press, 2014), billed as his first full length book of poetry, Burnhope returns to, experiments with, and builds upon those themes already resident in his early work.
The book's title augmented by Eleanor Bennet's cover photograph immediately suggests Darwinian evolution. This recognition is fine as far it goes, but, much as he did in his first book, the poet immediately complicates this perception with three quotations, only one of which belongs to Darwin. Far from being optional, dwelling on these quotations provide some needed preparation for Burnhope's book. The first quote, from Francis Turretin, describes the three species of Mosaic law: moral, ceremonial and civil. The middle quote comes from Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace, as everyone knows, was in a sprint with Darwin to announce a theory of evolution. For the purposes of Species, however, Wallace's importance is that while Darwin shelved his religious views in writing Origin of Species, Wallace increasingly maintained a role for God in evolution. While Burnhope does follow up on Darwin's "We will now discuss in a little more detail the Struggle for Existence" with respect to disability, delivering on that on that promise in the book, he also let's us know that in terms of understanding his poems, God is not out of the picture. In addition to setting the stage for the book, the quotes put us on notice that if we are going to dive into Species with any expectation of benefiting from what it has to offer, we'd better have a dictionary, a Biblical concordance, and the Internet handy.
The table of contents leads the reader to believe that the book is divided into two parts. Part one opens with "Up the Clobber Shop" a poem book-ended by the volume's final piece "Up the Clobber Passage, " which provides an emotional counterpoint to it. The poem opens with a P. T. Barnum style come-on:
Welcome, welcome. As you can see
This is an invitation to several layers of diversity — the book's wide variety of poems, the variability in the human body that disability presents, and the wide range of animal species. There is already blatant notice that we will be dealing with theological issues and a veiled reference in the word "passage" to the book's final poem. Of course, the carney's voice can play on our curiosity while it marginalizes the very people it is dependent upon to draw in its hustles, so the reader needs to decide whether or not to take the bait when they read the poems final lines:
Now, what interests
Three more poems set up the remainder of the book's first half. "The Species That Begat the Binaries" returns to Turritan's tri-part division of law into moral, ceremonial and civil. It is a rich poem that deserves an entire essay in itself. Characterizing moral law as a "magnificently resilient animal" Burnhope yokes together what many would think an unlikely pair, police and paralympians. He also (re)introduces one of the book's major themes, issues around sexual preference, "man shall not ride with a man (beast), as with a woman (burden)." Characteristic of Burnhope and all good poets at their best, not a word is wasted. The first line of stanza three ("The Civil is a graciously disobedient invertebrate"), for example, serves a double task. It parallels and echoes the first lines of the two preceding stanza and it prefigures subsequent poems the draw on serpent and Garden of Eden imagery.
Another of the binaries referred to in the title of the previous poem is taken up in the book's third poem ""Am I DisAbled?"" A Self-Diagnosis Questionnaire." It is the first book in the poem in the book to target the medical establishment relationship with disability. The poem works by carrying questions to their logical absurdities, as in the following:
10. Does anything on your body uncontrollably:
To drive the point home, questions 11 and 12 ask, respectively, whether you can tie knots and what you can throw over your shoulder. Not surprisingly, the title of the fourth poem is "Taxonomical."
Following from the book's title, the remainder of the poems in section one of the book deal with varied forms of animal life, including lemurs, ducks, rhinos, bears and a special emphasis on reptiles. As one can guess, these are by no stretch of the imagination nature poems. Most are laden with Christian theological references and some, such as "To My Hydrocephalic Sister, Champa the Moon Bear," are deeply personal.
The second section of the book (unlike the first) is given a title — "Abnominations." Though the Biblical nature of the title is likely to be what strikes the reader first, it actually alludes to the form of eight poems that comprise this section. The form, known as an abnominal, was invented by Andrew Philip who describes it thus: "The abnominal is a form I have developed using only the letters of the dedicatee's name, each of which must appear at least once per stanza. The poem, which is 20 lines long, should begin and end by addressing the dedicatee in some way. The title must also be an anagram of their name."
Predictably, a poet attempting to write in this form will shortly therafter be referring to it as an abominable. Most readers will likely be doing the same. It is one of those feats of virtuosity that is likely to be gratifying to the artist but not do much to advance the art.
Of the poems attempted, the one least likely to compete with Finnegan's Wake for obscurity is that composed for Maurice Sendak.
An abnominal for Maurice Sendak
Immerses audiences —
You get the picture. To highlight how much fun he is having with this, Burnhope writes the final one in Icelandic (or is it faux-Icelandic?) This section does get in a few political punches, as in his abnominal for David Cameron, but the smart money is betting that the abnominal will not become a standard feature in Burnhope's repertoire.
The abnominations are followed by a page blank on two sides; then the poems resume in less constricted guises. The suggestion is that even supposed binaries are not really binaries at all but house a greater complexity. The poems that follow comprise the book's least tightly structured section, but likely contain a number of the poems that a reader, especially a reader of disability literature, would be most likely to return to. Three of these are included in the poetry section of this issue of Wordgathering.
This final section begins with the volume's only prose poem, "Serepentent." Not only does this connect with themes promised earlier in the book but it also harkens back to "The Serpentine Verses," a poem in The Snowboy that was also marked by a change in form. Referring to the tradition of Satan as the snake in Eden, the poet writes,
At first light I crawl too, bottom-shuffle if doing the stairs. Sometimes I wonder if maybe I am a host for him, a carrier: so he is entwined in veins and arteries, yes, but also VP shunt invasively planted from my brain to journey's-end.
This is not simply a reference to the old tradition of disability as God's punishment for sin, it is the acknowledgement that part of what makes us most human are those attributes often characterized by organized religion as evil, particularly those associated with instinct and the capacity to feel. Burnhope continues:
But without my Shibari-brother would I have been able to learn desire at all? Would I know how to make love, fuck well; tie my shoelaces with these dysfunctional cripple-fingers?
The theme of desire as a precursor to knowledge, whether intellectual or carnal, is a much explored one, of course, but in Species Burnhope brings it to bear on his effort to pin much of the problems of the enforcement of sexual binaries in current culture on Christian Biblical tradition rooted in Genesis. The imposition of the male-female binary as moral law was an attempt to shore up apparent pre-snake Edenic ideal of asexuality against any further any dissolution due to the desire for further knowledge. The books final two poems, "Adam and Eve It" and "Up the Clobber Passage" both grapple with how to undo that (law, binary). For Biblical literalists, "Adam and Eve It" points out that (at least in the J version of the story),
Adam, before the difference
"Up the Clobber Passage" (clobber passages being those Biblical passages that are used to preach against homosexuality) takes a more personal and psychological approach tracing Burnhopes own sexual awakening. To the question of "Is something wrong, the poem and book both answer with the refrain, "Of course there is.
Between this section's theological poems, Burnhope takes on Atos, one of his newest foes. He does this most pointedly and at greatest length in "Paralympic Lessons: The Atosonnets", a series of six poems too complex to unravel here, but his most basic complaint against ATOS is laid bare in three stanzas from "Ducking the Question."
An ATOS assessor
It is rumoured, the guy began,
called Workshire; that you think
Notwithstanding the posse of poets that surround him, Mark Burnhope is a unique voice among poets with disabilities. He is a civil rights style activist who is unafraid to take on theological issues. Unlike many disability poets who deal with religion by dismissing it, Burnhope takes it on on its own terms. At the same time, while it is an unfortunate fact that many activists who write verse are more sloganeers than poets, Burnhope is a conscientious craftsman of poetry. His work deserves to be better known by disabilities literary scholars and used more in college courses on disability — particularly in the United States.
With apologies to Nine Arches Press, those who have not previously read Mark Burnhope's work may want to grab an old copy of The Snowboy first (or at least read the review of it in Wordgathering), before taking on Species. The earlier book allows readers the chance to get used to the poets literary allusions, theological references and subject matter on a somewhat more (though not very) basic level. That being said, Species is a must-read book. Like any really worthwhile book, poetry or otherwise, it deserves to be read again and again. It also leaves one wondering what direction the poet will take next. If there is one danger in Burnhope's work, it is that self-referentiality and an increasingly rarified or camp circle of allusions make it inaccessible to even the intelligent reader. (What worked for Eliot does not necessarily work for everyone.) And none of us wants to be marginalized. In the meantime, Species should keep us occupied for awhile.