KR Reviews

“Little fang of light”: On Soft Volcano by Libby Burton

Ardmore, PA: Saturnalia Books, 2018. 55 pages. $16.00. 

Engaging with Libby Burton’s Soft Volcano, winner of the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, comes with a hint of danger, as any volcano should. Filled with highly inventive language and forever shifting layers of time and perspective, the collection returns and returns to the same figures—mothers, fathers, and “you” as lover, another—in what seems to be an attempt to turn a lifetime of feeling into something grounded and tangible. By teasing its way through close relationships from multiple vantage points, Soft Volcano reckons with personal history, desire, and a body’s awakening and decline. From this exploration, Burton suggests life exists in the tension between hunger and peace, and as such is often complex but rarely dignified.

Divided into three sections, Soft Volcano primarily utilizes a first-person narrator or direct address to someone in the second person. The lack of clarity between how closely the first-person narrator cleaves to Burton herself and who the “you” is in individual poems—lover, reader, poet, other—gives each poem much interpretive space. Burton, perhaps knowingly, gives name to her poetic sensibility in “Thanksgiving Dinner,” the final poem of the first section. Here, everyone at the table is ready to “ravish // the long work,” which seems undefinable until Burton suggests the term “Joycean.” Reading Soft Volcano is much like attending a large Thanksgiving dinner with a buffet of rich foods, and Burton, with “Joycean,” gifts us with a key to interpreting her work, which is replete with verbal play, narrative shifts, and polysemy.

Soft Volcano’s first poem, “A Brief History of Hysteria,” opens with Burton’s artful technique on full display:

All of this magic is death:

          your vicious little organ singing like a drunk uncle,

                                                            the beautiful, white-headed children

                                                  that passed through your body,

          the cats you fed till plump as pimples and languid.

As in many of her later poems, Burton uses words with multiple meanings, and the title’s hysteria can be found in this angry organ: a uterus turning on itself through illness and the uterus as a source of unmanageable, overwhelming female emotion. In mostly one-line stanzas, the poem makes bold leaps from children and childbearing to rot and an alleyway in Morocco.

Throughout, Burton does not clarify the “you” of this poem aside from the fact that she is a woman. Readers know her daughters are missing, possibly, or choosing not to be in attendance. While women worldwide teach “other women to be vessels,” the poem’s “you” is possibly dying amid clean linen, feeling abandoned to the humming gadgets that extend human life. Equally possible, “you” could be a woman in a kitchen wondering what “you will remember about this place”—a hospital, Morocco, a home, life? Linen and gadgets become the basis of her hysteria, and things that fix other things “are not glamourous technologies” despite the life-giving returns. Equally possible, “you” could be both women. So readers are left to wonder at how many ways the poem can be read. The possibilities seem endless. For “you” to evade an anxiety attack as the poem closes, Burton offers, “Breathe deep and drop nothing off your tray, my sweet.” This is solid advice to readers as they advance through the rest of Soft Volcano.

So much of Burton’s success in Soft Volcano rests in the intensity of her language, which is fiery and malleable. In “Elizabeth,” a poem midway through the collection, “An orange-jacketed morning has let me loose over the clean, / cat-tailed collar bone of New Jersey on a slick purposeful bus.” With its repetitive harsh “j” and “ck” sounds softened slightly with “l” sounds, the first two lines of the poem aurally set up the narrative contrast between past and present, reality and want that is addressed throughout the poem. Where the first two quatrains of “Elizabeth” show the poem’s narrator trapped between memories of a relationship unraveled and the present day’s clouds “livid / with light-licked dirt and the sensation of not belonging,” the final two quatrains address the bolstering beauty of desire. Here, the poem suggests intimacy and physicality—even when lost—is a balm. “I believe,” says Burton:

. . . beauty is in the long want, the hot chase,
          in under-lit parking lots, small disappointments

stacked up like coins. Beauty is in that old ingenious song of the heart.
          Little fang of light over Paterson: I am pinning a lot on you,
what sustains with the particular tincture of inner thigh, in flex and hair.

Reality is both the sum of memory and disappointment and a stab of light coming through morning clouds. So Burton sends readers back to the first lines of her poem, ending “I am certain someday the craved world will be the one I am living in.”

By Soft Volcano’s third section, this craved world seems within reach, perhaps because many of the poems address a lover, “you,” with a constancy not always apparent in earlier sections. Burton’s love is never simple and without trial. It is tied to body and desire, but not always positively. For instance, in “Intimacy,” Burton opens with a couplet where a rabbit in a yard draws forth a memory of a young lover. With Josh, Burton learned to love herself and to be kinder to her body:

But the prize for this is two bodies and how they will betray us—
easily at first, and then with vigor and memories.

Burton is reminded of her mother—“did my mother wear skirts as a child? / Where did she place her knees?” As the poem ends, Burton returns to a couplet, memories of Josh leading her unexpectedly to her mother’s naked knee and how the pain of an aging body must be held as close as pain from youthful loss.

Immediately following, Burton addresses her current love in the titular poem “Soft Volcano,” noting that the two “have done little harms to each other, and we shared soup when the moment was right.” Again, love comes in many guises, including recollections of consuming lust made messy in word choices like “vicious,” “chomped,” “gashed,” and “sick” and of lasting desire despite aging bodies. As she has done throughout Soft Volcano, Burton grafts her penultimate line with possibility: “I wish to make a ravishing of you.” Does she want to ravish day, the sun, her lover, her “little headache of this life”? Read again, readers might wonder if the morning sun has just as marvelous a mouth as her lover or as a baby. That the first line of the poem ends with the word “verisimilitude”—the appearance of being true or real—seems a playful reminder from Burton of the constantly shifting personas and landscapes of her collection. As does the poem’s final line, “Let’s stomp around without apology, surrender again today.”

The poems that make up Soft Volcano require attention and care. Often what seems apparent on a first reading has a different face in a second reading or a third. Libby Burton has utterly crafted her poems, and punctuation can mean as much as image, verb tense as much as a poem’s selected form. Soft Volcano is a masterful ride through a life that is recognizable through the intensity of emotion Burton captures in her play with image, language, and sound. Whatever seems unrecognizable often turns out to be beside the point, as Burton draws readers into her own curiosities and questions and gives them space to want and dream. Burton’s eye may draw forward and back, all too often with a degree of unease, but Soft Volcano finds a way to sink into the complicated present with just enough hope and relief.

Lisa Higgs’s third chapbook Earthen Bound was published by Red Bird Chapbooks in February 2019. Currently, Higgs is the Poetry Editor for Quiddity. Her poetry has been published widely, and her book reviews and interviews can be found at the Poetry Foundation, Kenyon Review Online, and Adroit Journal.