A Review of Simple Master by Alice Burdick

By Lance La Rocque

Humorous, surreal, and sad, Simple Master investigates the interweaving of individual memory and collective history, along the way continually proposing new ways of viewing the world. On one level, which is never entirely absent from even her most radical poems, Alice Burdick gathers up the elements of perception in a sophisticated and beautiful lyrical mode:
The invisible world
is just as great as the world I see,
reflection I get to see, eventually,
or the source, getting into texture,
this earth I feel.
The front, top and sides of an idea.


You may not see my honey;
you may not see my mother, my grandmothers,
my grandfathers, all around,
but they give me a space to travel through.
Smooth the air on my limbs,
the way heat and cold move about.
They ease the pressure I feel
on my heart.
(“Getting On”)

Even in her most lyrical key, Burdick reaches towards the world, analysing what lets it exist at all. In one poem she writes that “The only music you hear in this neighbourhood/is lyric driven” but quickly announces her own impulse: “I want to understand what loneliness is./Is it possible? So much is going on,” “so many people outside,/walking around, intersecting” (“Light Daily Shifts”). Like some L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets (think of Ron Silliman's astonishing Xing), Burdick presents an onslaught of pop/public references: from “Oscar's garbage can” to the “Space Program.” She engages with the media that engage her: “radio,” “tv”, advertising (“Free! Coupons”), and film (“Cows fly in movies”). And she doesn't repress the overtly political: “Washington is out of control,” “the politician blinks,” “Remember Kuwait?/Fire keeps on, even near water.” On top of all that, her work is littered with everyday objects and references— astronauts, letters, money, buildings, dildos, plastic utensils, books, newspapers, missiles, and ketchup bottles, etc—appearing somehow both as ordinary and haunting. It's as if things, references, messages existed partly in the ordinary, normalising world and partly in a dream state, available for use by an individual's unique dreamscape. For example, in “Spadina Way” she writes
Hands fold involuntarily together in the Christian model of prayer.
Cans of Christ, Jesus among the beans and pork, industry in excelcis deo.
The priest meant what he said about trust in God like trust in food labels.
I'm not dreaming, but what's that pink and yellow smelly globule
in my tall frosty glass of milk? It's God! He sure goes down smooth.
Against the flattening out tendencies of much post modern writing, Burdick, within the fluidity of interconnections, maintains the traces of borders and depths. There are landmarks of refuge, layers of consciousness, and recognitions of hierarchy. Nature, for example, often appears— blood, air, water, trees, skin, cats, horses—as a positive value within and against the deluge of commercial appeals and technological invasions. Moreover, Simple Master regularly names names, revealing the shape and abuses of hierarchy: “Timothy Eaton”, “empire,” “CN Tower,” and the techno-industrial world, as in “Under a Tree”: “the water in the earth is sucked/and siphoned, made smoke by industry.” However permeable, the self is not identical to the flow of discourses, but gets shocked by it too, and so stands apart in part: “All/manner of life stares in wonder at this bizarre refraction of modern life” (“Around the Mountain”). With its vivid deformations, twists, and lateral jumps, Simple Master shows how basic psychic processes (Freud's displacement and condensation?) joyously demolish static cultural scripts: “On the screen, a pixelated scene/of two women with strange eyebrows. How does age arch the eyebrows?/Mountain ridges over small valley streams. Smooth music continues outside of summer” (“Remembrance Day”).

If the derailing play of association offers one mode of resistance to mass media manipulations, Burdick's play with cliché, the contemporary spectacle of signs, offers another. The long poem “Bubblies” directs us to this motif:

You're weirder than I've ever dreamed. That's evidence of the blandness
of my dreams. What are your most common sayings?
Are they pithy old monstrosities you repeat till they're air?
Hot and cold bubble up into the centre of the platform
for a curly taxi driver. Just get outta the way, okay!
The clichés play in the mind, sometimes semi-submerged, sometimes floating nakedly (“Spill the beans”; “Will you be my neighbour”; “No, and you can quote me on that”; “Love the neighbours”; “Just the man I am/serves as notice to the stars”). In any case Burdick transforms banalities from the invisibility of “air,” giving them a sometimes hilarious and disturbing density:
Bush provides spectacular
and appropriate hair care for the nation.
I am scared of this. This scares me.
My life climbs a tree, the tallest branch
leans toward the earth.
While throwing such clichés into question/quotation, Burdick reclaims them through satire, deformation, and appropriation, enlarging her world, her share of the language. These poems bristle with wonderful shocks to perception--intellectual, visceral, and hallucinatory. Simple Master doesn't just describe a world, it explores the production of reality, devises ways of challenging hierarchy, and generates multiple angles for entering into experience.


Lance La Rocque Lance La Rocque teaches The Writer and Nature and Canadian Poetry at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. He is the author of the forthcoming poetry collection, The Gross Metaphysics of Meat (Proper Tales Press).

Simple Master by Alice Burdick is available from Pedlar Press for $19.95