Word Poetry

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Sample Poems by Christopher Bursk


How You Learned to Read

Because you could hear your mother in the dusk
sobbing as if she'd just pulled a knife out of her,
you open The Book of Knowledge,
Volume 3, and start with How to Draw a Jam Jar
and do not stop till
What to Do with a Girl's Work Basket,
At your age, you don't need much light
to read. Or have to understand all the nouns
and verbs to know what they are saying.
The War Begun in a Rose Garden.
Little Picture Stories in French,
The Troubled Land Where a Child Was King,
Pictures of Leaves and Twigs
(Use Prussian blue, gamboge, a little light red.
Put Vandyke brown with the blue
and let the paper be damp - not too wet).
Something terrible will happen
if you don't pay attention to every word
in your grandfather's 1929 edition
of the Book of Knowledge, Volumes 1-20.
You know this the way you know nothing else
in your life. To keep yourself awake
you dig your nails into your arm as deep
as they go. The Struggle for a Continent,
What Makes a Bee Hum?
Don Quixote and the Clouds of Dust,
The Procession of Treble Road,
Microbes That Do More Mischief than Wolves,
Two Fighting Clothespins,
Why Spiders Aren't Caught in Their Own Webs,
How Worms Breathe Underground,
What Keeps a Balloon Up,
Still More Little French Lessons in Pictures.
While your father downstairs is figuring out
how to keep your mother from killing herself
or you, you draw Sir Isaac Newton so close
to your face he could be whispering
to you or you to him.
That's the kind of reading you've always loved.



Visiting Hours

If you sit up as straight as you can,
maybe your mother will be proud of you
enough to introduce you to her friends -
the woman who smokes invisible cigarettes,
a two-legged man who stands like a bird on one.
If you whisper to her about the boy
you made up, your escapades with him,
she might stop worrying the cuffs
of her shirt, her fingers
rubbing out an imaginary spot on her sleeve,
tugging at a thread that's not there.
Maybe you'll tell her something
so important she'll have a reason to get better.
How yesterday you slayed a dragon.
How the day before you stopped the world
from spinning off its axis and into the sun.
You'll describe the flowers that grow
in the fields you and Alwyn explore;
how the pansies all have faces
just as she likes, how you and Alwyn
put down your bows and arrows
and undo your belts
till you're as naked as the wild animals
who wait for you.
Your secrets will be safe with your mother.
With whom would she share them?
The old woman who bites her lip till it bleeds,
the old man who rubs dirt into his face?
The doctors? It's your fault
your mother is here. You know it.
She knows it. On the hospital grounds
the birds dart from tree to tree, bragging
of their own adventures. Soon
your mother's fidgeting
with her collar as if it's too tight,
as if all her clothes hurt her.
You make a small hollow in the dirt
with the heel of your shoe.
There'll be no traveling today to other worlds.



A Fourth Grader's Concept of Justice

Some days you call him Rafe;
other days Ignacio; on rainy afternoons Ainslie;
in the dusk Poussaint. You tremble
in his presence like a candle flame
when a window's been opened in a room.
You're never ready for the back of his hand,
each slap questioning your face,
his fists' repeated reminders to your belly
that has no business going soft,
first one kick in your groin, then another,
as if that part of your body can never be damaged
enough. You don't want to be this boy
moaning on the floor, at the mercy of a man
determined to take from you
what he can, and you want to be this boy
more than anything else in the world.



Mirrors Useful for More Than You Might Think

1 - the pocket mirror

When your teacher looks at you -
as she often does - as if you're a stone
someone had dug up and asked her to teach
long division, it helps to know
you have another world
in your pocket. At least the door
into it. At recess you tilt your small mirror
till it fills with a tree you carry back to class.
Even though you know better
you like to believe that what a mirror looks at last
it keeps, so one day you have flowers
blooming in your pocket
and the next an insect buzzing there
whose twin still interrogates the dogwood outside.
You like that there are two of everything:
the rain drops gilding a leaf,
the leaf even more bejeweled in the glass.
The playground's smaller and less menacing
once it's enclosed in the rectangle
you've stuffed into your corduroys
so you can bear Clarkie Truesdale home with you,
Bobby Duggan next to your crotch
where he can't hurt you.
All that's required of you
is that you make sure the mirror doesn't drop
out of your hands as so much does
and splinter into more pieces than you could put back together.
You learn to walk
a certain way when carrying anything fragile,
but that's part of its beauty:
it could shatter all at once.

2 - full-length mirror

What do you need with a full-length mirror?
your mother wants to know.
What's so interesting about your body
you have to see it all at once?
You don't tell your mother
that you plan on stripping off pants and shirt
and waiting till the mirror decides
to be a door. You know one thing for sure:
you must be completely undressed
to walk through a mirror. You know also
there's a boy on the other side
so striking he doesn't need to wear clothes.
You go back and forth
between his world and yours.
Time passes so quickly on the other side
of the mirror that when you return
you're surprised to find it's only a half hour later.
And then one afternoon you wake
to your mother staring at you
sprawled on the floor before the mirror
and so still it must've been difficult for her
to tell if you were breathing or not.
She says nothing. Just closes the door
so softly you're not positive
she'd even been in your room.


When you come home from school
the next day, the mirror's gone.
You find it in the trash
smashed to so many pieces
she must've struck it with a hammer
over and over, so there'd be no way
you could put it back together.
You tried. How you tried!