Monday, January 30, 2017



Then Go On by Mary Burger
(Litmus Press, Brooklyn, 2012)

On one level (among many levels), Mary Burger’s Then Go On seems to be about post-seeing: that is, one sees, and then the questions are What is significant? or What is the significance? If so, such can be apt—what one sees and then how one understands what one sees are two separate steps. What makes Then Go On so endearing to me are what I thought of as “plot twists.” In many of the works, there is no logical or predictable cause-and-effect between what was seen and then what was understood from such witnessing. The whole effect is rather entrancing.

Here’s one example, the poem “I Like Purple.” By the way, I’m calling these writings “poems” but they could be prose or flash fiction or whatever—they’re poems, to me, though they transcend normative genre.

“I like purple,” she says. “I don’t know why.”

She tapes plastic farm animals to a piece of cardboard and calls it a farm. She has colored the cardboard green. We accept her premise.

The truth came out: I did not know how to read.

I show above the first two paragraphs, and then, five paragraphs later, the second-from-last paragraph. How deftly did Burger get there! It also explains why the one-sentence paragraph, “The truth came out: I did not know how to read.” arrived with a pleasurable shock, pleasurable for its unpredictability.

The impact of such “twists” enliven these poems/prose poems. In addition, given such plot twists, it seems logical that many of the endings are just fantastically powerful, e.g. the ending to “A Series of Water Disasters, 1”:

"Standing there in the sunny white passageway filling with seawater, with water that would not be still until the surface was level with the sea, I realized then that my mother’s faith would drown me."

My favorite attribute I’d ascribe to this collection is lucidity: it generates such impactful-ly wise lines as

 “Some lives bear no resemblance to the things that happen in them.”
—from “A Series of Water Disasters, 4”

Here’s another example that I share from randomly opening the book:

“The way shoots come off a new shrub uncontrollably, in all directions. The exuberance of growing is too much to contain. The exuberance will have to be contained, which will mean eliminating some of it.”
—from “The Man Without Stumps”

Such lucidity also results in “All New Yorker Stories,” a tour de force poem of seemingly about New Yorker stories, but is actually much more. It’s an analysis as much as it is a review as it offers its own litany of significances as generated by the poet’s imagination and separate from the referenced works (two stories are footnoted at end of work to imply scaffolding: they were what were being referenced as the poet wrote our her work). Burger’s poem is separate from the stories she read in the way cake is separate from flour, milk, eggs, cinnamon, salt, et al. But the ingredients were actually their own cakes—what was read was stories, not words from a dictionary—but the point is that these cakes also became ingredients for Burger’s cake. (I write the next two sentences after this parenthetical as what I think to be a Mary Burger twist:) The critic suddenly realizes it’s 8 p.m. and she hadn’t eaten all day. Where’s that cake?!

In writing like this, it can be challenging to assess what works or doesn’t work. For, it’s like analyzing a collage where seemingly random things are spliced together. For one instance, I feel the second paragraph of “Rusted” works, but I’m not sure about the first paragraph, or, indeed, the overall poem. Here’s the poem’s first page:

Such contrasts with “Look—here comes a human” which is clearly a (pleasing) success. What makes this work for me? Music. Rhythm. And the psychologically stark elements. Returning to collage, these prose poems contained clear images whereas those in “Rusted” are more blurry from the conceptual meditations that are less fixed (as they are more subjective than the citations /imagery in “Look—here comes a human”).

“Rusted,” however, is the third work in the book—a positioning that implies authorial belief in its strength. I wonder, thus, what about this work I am missing.

But “Rusted” is the only instance where I felt some misgivings. Bluntly, I was blown away by the rest. There’s a languor, a density, a dense languor or languorous denseness that necessitate the prose poem form: its paragraphs. Such, too, is something to praise: the thoughts presented by the collection are fleshed out, deeply investigated before articulated, and the significance of that, I think, is that the thought process never frays until the last necessary word is written. What a feat: “In retrospect, a pattern emerged, but only just; one could not say it had been premeditated” (“Necessary”).

In fact, I think I could write a book alongside reading these works. I think the result would be interesting. Burger’s dense works contain much to generate a book-length response, which is actually to say, here are words she wrote but also the possibilities for words a reader might write. In this manner does the collection reveal a large heart as well as befit its title: Then Go On.

By the way, there are occasional presentations of poems the author wrote when she was seven years old. They’re not bad—actually pretty nifty! Here’s one her poems as a 7-year-old which spurred out the adult going on to make new poems:

From elsewhere in the book, when I read this from “Orbital,” I thought that this excerpt could serve as the collection’s “ars poetica”:

"This paradigm shifts so that words are as nimble as neurotransmitters. Like a small chemical messenger, a word can do anything you can think of. A word can move muscles. A word can hold eyes."

What a lovely—unspeakably lovely—passage.

Burger lets language write itself and the results also reveal the pleasure she must have felt in the process, a pleasure that replicates itself in the reader now reading her prose poems. Here’s a typical killer ending, this from "Talking About the Universe as if It Existed":

"I turned on every light in every room even though I could only be in one room at one time."

That killer ending is all the more impressive if you know that its poem began with a prosaic, “My boss Erik can’t stand Yoko Ono.” Just imagine how the word traveled to get to its ending!

I’ve thought about reviewing this book for five years, since when I first read it on release in 2012. It is so dense it took that long for the words to marinate within me (marinate? geez: I’m hungry. Where is that cake?!) so that I can finally generate a response. That response is gratitude that this work was created. Thank you, Mary Burger!


Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects because she's its editor (the exception would be books that focus on other poets as well).  She is pleased, though, to point you elsewhere to recent reviews of her work: THE OPPOSITE OF CLAUSTROPHOBIA was reviewed by Alan Baker for Leafe Press' LITTER and by Valerie Morton for The Poetry Shed; I FORGOT ARS POETICA was reviewed by Valerie Morton for Leafe Press' LITTER; and AMNESIA: Somebody's Memoir was reviewed by two Amazon Hall of Fame Reviewers: by Kevin Killian and by Grady HarpShe released three books and two chaps in 2016, and is scheduled to release a similar number in 2017. More info at

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