What People are Saying:
What Burden Do Those Trains Bear Away
Burgess, Kathleen S., What Burden Do Those Trains Bear Away: A Memoir in Poems.
Harmony Poetry Series, Bottom Dog Press (Huron, OH) 2018. PB $16.00.
Burgess has assembled a different kind of “on the road” collection of poems that—more like Elizabeth Bishop than Jack Kerouac— features the voice of a female traveler, whose journey is guided by memory as well as the map. Burgess, who grew up in Urbana, Ohio, and now lives in Chillicothe, Ohio, was clearly a child of the 1960s-70s, and Baby Boomers will recognize the cultural terrain, while Gen-Xers and Millennials may well be startled to learn that hitchhiking was an accepted form of transportation back then, that illegal drugs were just as accessible—and addictive— as they are now, and that casual sex and “hooking up” weren’t invented in the 1990s, but were prevalent in the 1960s-70s, owing to the advent of the birth control pill in 1963. The poems also mention touchstones of the era: the Vietnam War, draft dodgers and protests, the women’s movement, Peace Corps service, the moon landing, and Woodstock. Many of the poems, though, are quiet, contemplative accounts or vignettes of people and places along the way—so much so that Burgess herself acknowledges in “Adaptation,” a poem in the middle of the book, the lack of imminent threat and intrigue one usually associates with travel in Mexico and Latin America: "In case you’re losing interest because no one has been murdered or buried… I’ll tell you a story that Once-on-a-times In Barranquilla, on the Caribbean coast." The poem chronicles Burgess’s and her traveling partner’s encounter with “Raul” and his plan to have the couple buy and then smuggle cocaine out of Columbia. The “plan” instead turns out to be a swindle, as the pair soon discover that their coke is actually baking soda. The poem concludes with them counting their blessings and drinking tea with a “señora” in the cheap hotel where they had previously hidden from the law. “The heat is all but unbearable though fans/whip up small breezes. It’s sundown. We’re alive./unrestrained.” I wish I had room to cite more poems, as many display an engaging combination of music, rhythm, and wisdom that draws the reader right in, but I will have to settle for applauding Kathleen Burgess for how the forty-five poems in What Burden Do Those Trains Bear Away range from meditative to celebratory, from personal to political, from historical to contemporary, and from to humorous to deadly serious. Henry Miller once wrote that “One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.” With this collection, Burgess has reached that destination.
REVIEWED BY Kate Fox, poet, freelance writer, and former Ohioana Quarterly editor
What a memory this poet has for details!.....Such incantatory repetitions and masterful turning of lines! Who doesn’t love a good story, especially one that reminds us of a generation’s youth even while speaking with profound relevance to the treatment of asylum seekers at our border in 2018? These poems offer a trip, a rush, all taken with a dose of compassion. The breath you feel on the back of your neck is the zeitgeist of a caring era, one that was, is, and will be again.
Charlene Fix, author of Taking a Walk in My Animal Hat
Functioning as a journal of a hiking trip to Central and South America, the poems juxtapose natural and technical, sacred and profane, obvious and hidden, stimulating and dangerous, indigenous and colonial, personal and political as Burgess travels the unfamiliar topography of rainforests, mountain roads, and foreign city streets where she finds herself in the complex lives of others. In these poems of keen observation, reflection, and eventual acceptance, the First and Third Worlds dance, collide, and mesh.
Steve Abbott, author of A Green Light Between Green Fields
What Burden Do Those Trains Bear Away is an intriguing and evocative travelogue in which Kathleen S. Burgess interweaves the personal and the political in gorgeously lyrical ways. Her sensibilities for social justice and her recognition of the way historical record informs the present never suffer from sentimentality. Burgess’s dispatches enunciate the complexities of human expe-rience while subtly embedding hope that there should always be a next time when humanity will do it better.
Rikki Santer, author of Dodge, Tuck, Roll
Kathleen S. Burgess Fashions the world of a couple hitchhiking from the united States into Mexico and then into South America: "From the mirage of puddle and sky, / a black Cadillac emerges. Pulls to the berm, / blows up a storm cloud of grit and sting." Burgess's poem delight and entertain and remind us of who we are as they herald a respect for the Journey. Hers is a book whose success comes in letting us ride shotgun on a bona fide adventure, one in which "Breezes spray us / in rainbows, rainbows dispersing the heat, the sting of home."
Roy Bentley, author of Walking with Eve in the Loved City
In 1971-72, Kathleen Burgess hitchhiked through Mexico, Central and South America with a lover. These poems tell the story. They are hip, astute, sumptuous, simultaneously accessible and cultured, their hint of the classical journey spun with the unique dangers a woman faces on the road, which couldn’t be more timely given recent issues of sexual abuse. Her lyric poems sing of the trek, of love, of time, place, and sensibility. Readers can identify with a young, nubile, daring young woman, indignant about injustice, hungry for the lilt of another language, new foods, and a culture so close yet so far away. The experience transcends the vicarious, in poems so lush, your body slides right in, and whither it goes, the mind and heart follow. Her poems, Chekhovian in their toggle between humor and struggle, hardship and sensory opulence, revivify memories. It is no accident, in terms of the gist of the collection, that laughter at times averts tragedy.
Ohioana Library's announcement of books received, December 2018: Burgess, Kathleen S., What Burden Do Those Trains Bear Away: A Memoir in Poems. Bottom Dog Press (Huron, OH) 2018. PB $16.00
Reeds and Rushes: Pitch, Buzz, and Hum
Reeds and Rushes, with at least double indemnity in the pitch, hum, and buzz of Nature and Music, provide much of what excites or calms us. In poems that address two of the greatest gifts we experience on earth—music and nature—these poets pay tribute to how humankind has best put nature and music to use.
Bamboo socks and towels or flutes and record needles, our world is beautified and made comfortable through the marriage of human creativity and what springs forth even without us. Reed instruments, reeds for baskets and autumn décor—what could you add to the list?
Jennifer Bosveld, publisher
Shaping What Was Left
In Kathleen S. Burgess’s chapbook, Shaping What Was Left, the author immerses us in a world in which we must question what it means to be human, to be a Westerner in the twenty-first century, and to be a woman, “the apple eater and the apple.” In this world, we have lost our identities, become those “Who Do Not Know Our Names”; we are ugly ducklings in a labyrinthine world where love is the ultimate, but hidden prize.
Burgess moves deftly between the metaphysical and physical worlds of language, reveling in the music, the percussion, and the Anglo-Saxon violence inherent in spoken English. She metamorphoses into Plath's Lady Lazarus, resurrected and transformed, with “pearls grown from my body's breath”; she is Lot's wife, who “look(s) back / with compassion, with sorrow / on destruction”; she is inheritor of the chaos Pandora unleashed, and gracefully attempts to make sense of this chaos, to find beauty in the ordinary. A teenage girl's gawky loneliness, a tornado, childhood memories, misunderstood Biblical women—these are the remnants she speaks of in her title, the things we learn, or feel, or experience when we are young, which can swallow us if we do not try to understand them first.
Burgess writes that she is “restless with the swell— / impending storm / I cannot see.” While paying homage to predecessors Plath and Dickinson, Burgess helps us to clear the path toward our own personal Eden—through her verse, and on the right day, we may come away from her collection of poems with a new understanding of our humanity.
Burgess is from Ross County.
Ohioana Quarterly, Summer 2007
Let me start.... Not young but still walking through the world like a black Hindu shawl blowing in the wind. One of those classic beauty faces. Dietrich-ish if you like. And her poetry is boiling with sexuality:
At thirteen I slept in an unloved body,
wild behind a pimpled mask complete
with braces and blue-rimmed glasses,
teddy bear buttoned between my thighs....
we agonized over faces, hair, nails, breasts,
bellies, most embarassing moments. How far
to go with a boy. It advertised come-ons
like six records for a dollar. In the back
pages a contest: Match your lips
with Marilyn Monroe! Closest pair
wins a Toronto movie audition!
Her lips—voluptuous was understatement.
Her control of each muscle—unparalleled. I ached
to fluster pulses, longed to kiss,
to be kissed hard. I colored my lips
blush pink, pouting more ape than sex
(“Marilyn’s Lips,” p.7).
But it’s not all just sex either, but a sense of “class,” having money, travelling around to wherever she wants, especially to Europe, a kind of world-traveler royalty-touch about her. Not just huntress but international culturalist, the kind of multi-cultural ease that everyone longs for and just a picked few actually can glory in:
On this patchwork disk Dresden’s
cobbled streets flow like a stream
of tidy gravestones, relentlessly
over the edge of time’s
trampoline, bottom up.....
Stones, worried with lifetimes of
cacophony, filled up and stored,
filled and stored, need us to speak
from pressure silence, of melted bodies,
Semper Opera House, Frauenkirche, hospitals.....
She’s not in Europe, it’s all based on a disk, but somehow she brings us and herself totally into the Dresden reality.
It’s a thing you always feel when you’re with her...a certain kind of inborn internationalization. If she’d start writing in German, French, Czech, Hungarian, you wouldn’t be surprised.
The irony is that there are other poems here are inspired by, if not DVDs then photos. Like “Before I Was Who She Became,” inspired by an untitled photograph from Moments Without Proper Names by Gordon Parks:
Here I stood in the back of the old hotel,
around my shoulders a crocheted curtain
fine and light for flying.
The lobby divan I claimed in the alley
lay split to its stuffing
soft as down, white in my hands.
I pressed through a broken pane
into the wreckage—charred carpets,
wallpaper, main desk, and chairs....
She somehow super-realizes/turns into reality whatever it is that touches on her imagination, digests the image-world Out There and then makes it part of her own weltanschauung / world-view.
Reality directly perceived, or second-hand/media perceived, they are all part of the same real-world reality that transforms everything into palpable presentness.
She can take a little vacation-trip to Lake Erie and look at a lighthouse and turn it into Mochica archaeology:
Marblehead lighthouse, a cornucopia
spilling its years, a telescope standing
on end as though gazing through history
into the rock and rumble
of Lake Erie. Fish-rich
on the shore cottonwood
trees spread nets of shade
snaring summer cottage and lawn,
has stacked cordwood for a fire.
Breathing smoke through his hair,
into his hands, he paints
his face a primal glow.
It shines as he looks
over tenebrous water,
feels ash blown from Eastlake,
knows silent Orion, Davis-Besse,
Perry, Nine Mile, Sammis-Star,
Oyster Creek,Indian Point.
You feel the same sort of pan-historical overviewing insights in her vision as she stands talking to you, as if she were automatically turning you into some sort of immortal verse. She’s like Monet in Giverney spending his years turning the landscape around him into immortal paintings. What she should really write next is a book on perception with a title like Immortalizing the Now.
Hugh Fox, Immortal Jaguar, 200 novels, 54 books of poetry, Founder of the Pushcart Prize
Meditation on Shaping What Was Left
by Kathleen S. Burgess (Pudding House Publications, 2006).