Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Renaissance Man for the Dark Ages

When I was in Vancouver in May, I had the pleasure of meeting and listening to a reading by Clint Burnham, a writer now based in Vancouver whose work I had known something about for years, but whose work I’ve only read in-depth for the first time this summer.

Donato Mancini, a brilliant young writer (and author of a first book, Ligatures, that combines concrete poems and textual process pieces in fascinating ways) who I met in Vancouver and who helped arrange several events for me there, was surprised that I had heard of Clint, and proceeded to insist how much he liked his writing, and especially his fiction, which I had never heard about. I was surprised that Donato was surprised that I knew who Clint was, and Donato was surprised at my surprise and so on. But in any case, if having heard of Clint Burnham may or may not be surprising, anyone discovering the range of his work for the first time is going to find themselves startled more than once.

Burnham is perhaps best known in the United States as the author of a book of criticism on Duke University Press, The Jamesonian Unconscious: The Aesthetics of Marxist Theory, which made a pretty big noise when it was published in 1995. It’s an inventive combination of hardcore scholarly analysis, off-kilter mixing of pop culture and academic references, and lively language. But Burnham is at least marginally well known south of the border as a poet too, and I had certainly encountered his work in a number of publications.

Burnham’s most recent book of poems, Rental Van (scroll down the link to find the book) which was the focus of his reading, is a very complex blend of avant garde technique, colloquial vulgarity, and political outrage. Moments of overt anger tend to be subverted both by humor and by Burnham’s tendency to complicate the position of the text’s various voices relative to the problems he investigates, from the Iraq war to more local political and social betrayals. Burnham never allows the voices of his text the simplicity of critiquing some fallen other side from a position of self-righteous purity. Instead the voices are deeply enmeshed in the problems they describe; language in the poems gets thrown around as a sort of chaotic cloud that the voices are necessarily inside: Here’s the opening of “British Props”:

shovel petals fissiparous dictionary guitar neck cup holders very different

length keep the hand

piedbald dWalt culture a test she’s so on it snap-on calendar’s gone tit’s up

get up & change the pope’s upsidedown hands

spectacles canadian literature’s neighbourhood cut package illegal suites hyper trophy screw

heels into eyes kept to the forefront open to use it

my old man she rubs this ball

possible with the rise of the keyboard hold

something else inside a opium “he got for ‘er” take out

inside baby

suck embarrassment affect you?

Burnham certainly doesn’t allow his poems any simple access to representation: although there’s plenty of representation in the book, language also sometimes becomes an opaque white noise with suggestive variations, or a series of smoke screens inside smoke screens.

Speaking of smoke, though, the biggest surprise for me was discovering that Burnham is also a fiction writer. There’s no shortage of smoke of all kinds in his two books of fiction to date, the short story collection Airborne Photo (scroll down the link to find the book) and the novel Smoke Show. If Burnham’s new book of poems is recognizably contemporary avant garde in its linguistic techniques, I guarantee you that you haven’t read fiction like his before. The voices of the characters, and the stories they tell, comprise almost the whole of the narrative structure. They’re all characters from the seamy side of life in the cities, suburbs, and towns of western Canada. The unemployed, uneducated, drug addicts and dealers, alcoholics, ex-soldiers, women and men with children but no money, no future, and just about any deviance you can think of—and you can be certain that Burnham’s characters have thought of more types of deviance than you can. Everything happens in a haze of inarticulateness, yet at the same time, Burnham’s sense of voice is remarkably precise. He captures quite exactly everything his characters can’t say. Here’s the opening of the story “French Canadian Units”:

The thing is, what everyone knew was, if you talk to a buddya mine who was over there, you know, he’ll, he’ll tell ya, you know, he’ll tell ya, ya, you know he’ll tell ya, it’d get much worse. If they found the stuff, the documents about what happened, what really happened, it’d sure be a lot worse. But, you know, it’s the higher-ups.

Because of this focus on the colloquial, the structure of these pieces makes them undeniably inventive, and avant garde in a very original way. Voices ramble, break off suddenly, get forgotten, say the most banal and outrageous things simultaneously, and then just stop and that’s the story. There’s often no conventional development of any sort.

Airborne Photo, the earlier book, may have just a tinge of shock for the sake of shock, although the story “The Jesus Sex Doll Box” is every bit as funny as it needs to be in the face of that title. It’s also the story, apparently, that a Vancouver area professor was sued simply for teaching, for those of you who like to be in on the lurid details. Smoke Show, the follow-up novel (if you want to call it a novel, and since Burnham does I’ll let him), traces a more consolidated arc that nonetheless goes absolutely nowhere. The book’s brilliant concluding sections finally just fade away every bit as absolutely as the narrative voice in a Beckett novel.

So Burnham is a writer who does excellent work in criticism, poetry, and fiction, all of it innovative, some of it absolutely original, and most of it a lot less known than it might be. I guess it’s no surprise that his range of talents would appeal to me, and it turns out he’s exactly my age too.

Last e-mail I had from him though, about a month or more ago, he had little time to write, since he was buried under a mound (as they say, as Robert Creeley would say) of summer school grading. But finally that’s no big surprise either: it may just be what you earn for being a renaissance man during the dark ages.


tmorange said...

i'm grateful for my short tenure i the great white north especially for exposing me to a lot of great poets i might otherwise never have heard of. and there are many in vancouver, burnham among them. (deanna fergusson i another i wish more people knew.) but i did not know burnham published fiction too. rock on!

douglang said...

This is a great post. This is what a blog can do.

Rental Van is on my list of books to read, and I want to put Airborne Photo and Smoke Show on there, too. Just afraid that my eyes are bigger than my reading time, not to mention my wallet, as these lists do tend to grow.

Thanks, Mark.