Thursday, May 7, 2020

Review of "Open Burning" by Christopher McCurry

Open Burning

by Christopher McCurry

Accents Publishing, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-936628-55-1

79 pages

Christopher McCurry grew up right outside of Lexington, Kentucky in the small town of Paris. In the seventh grade he entered one of his poems in a contest and won a medal. He's since lost the medal but still remembers the poem. His poetry has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and featured on NPR's On Point as a Best Book of 2016 for his chapbook of marriage sonnets Nearly Perfect Photograph. A graduate of the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College and a high school English teacher, he spends his time playing board games, skateboarding, and going on adventures with his daughter Abra. In 2015, Christopher co-founded Workhorse, a publishing company and community for working writers. He believes everyone should write poems and that everyone can.  (Bio and photo from Accents Publishing’s website).

Christopher McCurry’s Open Burning speaks of the gradual unraveling of a marriage alongside a father’s growing love for his young daughter. The book contains three categories of poems: ones about his wife, ones about his daughter, and ones about apocalyptic dreams, though these categories bleed into each other. The poems don’t appear to be arranged by the above categories I’ve delineated, or in any chronological order. They are intimate and emotionally intense. I read the collection in one sitting, and it affected me deeply. I felt as if I’d been through an apocalypse along with the people that appear in these poems.

Open Burning’s first poem, “The Epoch of Nothing Beyond Her,” sets the tone for the many of the poems to come—poems that recount dreams with apocalyptic settings and imagery. The “her” in the title and “she” in the poem refer to the narrator’s daughter. It opens with “When she was born my mind went dark. / I no longer dreamt my death.” The poem ends with his dreams returning “Four years later on her birthday.” He relays his dream with the following surreal imagery:

          I’m locked in a cell and an eye of gray watches me.

          In the black of the pupil there’s a man with my teeth
          eating from the palms of his hands. 

In the poem “Tarantinoesque Societal Underbelly Soap Opera,” he dreams he’s in “an abandoned storefront,” where men are dismembering a body, telling him that “the more of you / from different parts / of life involved, / the harder it will be / for the police.” They are ordered at gunpoint to “each take a piece / of this man with you.” Then, the dream switches to an airport, where a woman warns him:          

                               …they will pin
          this on whoever they catch
          and everyone loves a good
          story about a teacher fucking
          up his life. It will be front page news.

In the poem “Surreal Japanese Mumble-Core” he dreams people are chasing him with swords, and suddenly “It’s a game show. It’s televised. / Your fear is everyone’s fear.” Another dream described in the poem “French New Wave Influenced Latin American Apocalyptic Love Story” begins with:

          We have boxes of dead soldiers’ belongings.
          In one a copy of The Brothers Karamazov.
          Another stuffed with letters and flowers.

          Our job is to bury the boxes because we can’t bury the bodies.

At one point in the dream, bombs start falling, and:

          One hits the mountain and melts the car
          and at first we don’t understand
          that the car is melting into us and we ae melting too…

In the dream poem titled “PG-13 Superhero Movie,” more bombs are dropping and “I’m thrown / from it as buildings crumble / and flames catch and light // anything up.” He’s burnt to ash, but he rises “naked / but whole, glowing red. I’m the Phoenix, // resurrecting is what I do.” The poem ends with him, the superhero, searching for his daughter “because what’s the point of all this / fake destruction if there’s not / anything so fragile it needs to be saved.” This image of the Phoenix (the mythical bird rising from its flames) is a powerful one, because throughout these poems that is what he is attempting to do, move forward from the disintegration of his marriage and the worries of raising a daughter in today’s world.

This image of flames threads throughout these poems, as seen in the collection’s title poem “Open Burning,” a vision of the end of the world which poses the haunting question “… what will we do / until it’s our turn // to toss our bodies / in the burn barrel?”

The way these dreams shift unpredictably suggests and echoes the way his life feels so volatile—around every corner, another danger waits. These images of violence and uncertainty emphasize his mental and emotional state. In the poem “Most Nights,” he talks about the terror of these dreams, and how they reflect the trauma in his life:

          Sleep used to be safe but now
          the dreams come, cinematic and terrible
          in their invention. They say I’m sick.
          They say I’m hung from a tree—my feet
          in blocks of concrete in the cold lake of this life.

The poem concludes with him “wishing someone would show me / how to be me again so I wouldn’t / have to do it all by myself.”  The above image of being hung from a tree with his feet in concrete perfectly conveys his frustration and inability to know how to start reframing his life after his wife leaves.

The second category of poems revolve around his wife and the unraveling of their marriage. He addresses his wife as “you’ in these twelve sonnets titled with tally marks, but I’ll refer to them as numbers 1 through 12, since my I can’t figure out how to make tally marks on my keyboard. In poem “2” his wife is packing her clothes. That night she refers to their sex as “an exit tax.” He words it in the following way:

          Tonight when you come you cry out
          and I do too as though together we conjure
          a new reality out of pleasure, a new present,
          one that’s simpler to walk away from
          but also easier to return to.

The above lines portray so well the complications and contradictions that make up love relationships. In poem “3” their daughter wants to know why her mother has to move. He tries to explain: “I tell her there’s a you in your mind / you are anxious to meet.” The daughter asks, but what if he’s not happy, and he replies, “I think you and she will be. / And if not, you both can come back home.” Of course, we as readers, notice he didn’t answer whether he’d be happy, suggesting he won’t be, and that he doesn’t want to burden his daughter with that knowledge. 

These sonnets don’t appear to be in any chronological order, which implies the kind of back and forth, unsettling way relationships often traverse. Poem “5” opens with another sex scene in which he says, “We need a new way to talk about our bodies / during sex.” It’s serious and funny at the same time. He says:

                                                          …I don’t want
          to pound you, take you from behind, tear it up.

          Knocking the bottom out sounds to me like
          hitting speed bumps in a CVS parking lot
          while going too fast…

                                       ….I don’t want to hit it.
          Or beat it up. I’ve never plowed anything

          or ridden something that had a choice
          in the matter.

I love the way the poem finishes with intimacy and honesty: “Let’s start with this: / your clit under my tongue and name it.”

Poem “4” starts in a kind of joking manner, with him telling the men at the YMCA, “I won’t survive when I’m no longer / all that impressive to you…she no longer believes I’m a god.” But the poem ends on a haunting image of their cat catching a bunny, “a baby with the smallest ears.” It goes on:

                                               … It panted
          in the corner, scared and wet. I tried          

          to save it but I was too slow. The sound,
          as it is carried off into the night, hurts the most.

I couldn’t help but think that the “it” he tried to save also referred to his marriage, making the image all the more powerful. 

Poem “7” is a tender poem with an effective mix of sweet and sorrowful. In the first line he tells his wife that it’s true, he loves their daughter more than her. He tells how he listens for his daughter’s heartbeats. The images in the following lines are filled with such beauty and longing:

          The streetlight outside our apartment
          as she sleeps next to you pours through
          her and projects on your skin the cities
          she’ll build, the men and women she will love.

The poem continues with him saying he knows his wife also counts their daughter’s breaths, and the emotionally resonant lines:

          … Every sigh from her upturned face
          replacing me just as I replace you, in part, in half.

The next one in the collection, poem “8,” contrast the previous one with images of violence. It opens with the lines “Neither of us has killed the other so far. / The tools of misery are slow: / a half a turn of the vice, one drop / of battery acid.” But then things get more volatile:

          We’d adhere to the rules of puncture.
          And after stitch ourselves up. Take flame
          to the wound. Drive out infection.
          How do we recover from this? The hole
          in my gut, blood leaking from your ear.

Though we know that these are metaphorical battles and wounds, we also realize the hurt and regret are all too real. 

The last sonnet, “12,” speaks of the night the husband and wife agree that she will leave him. He says they stayed up late, talking, and “gave ourselves over to pleasure one more time.” The poem closes on such a heartbreaking note: “…this was always the best part of us so / we said thank you and then finally goodbye.”

Poem “11” is written after his wife has left, when he’s trying to build a life without her. It ends with a breathtaking image of loss:

                          …This zoo of origami animals is stupid
          I know, but the mind craves a complex system

          of clean folds, straight lines, of angles so sharp
          they make of your absence the absurd neck of swan.

The third category of poems in this collection revolve around his daughter and navigating fatherhood. In “The Name of Your Nail Polish is Free Spirit,” we witness a sweet moment of this father painting his daughter’s fingernails. It opens with the simple, but powerful lines: “First day of second grade / and we are both still learning.” It finishes with the gripping image of the daughter’s “hands steepled. / You’re afraid. It looks like prayer.”

In the poem “Your Personality,” he worries about protecting his daughter, which echoes back to the poem “PG-13 Superhero Movie,” a dream in which envisions him as a superhero searching for his daughter “because what’s the point of all this / fake destruction if there’s not / something so fragile it needs to be saved.” “Your Personality” begins with the lines:

          For five years I’ve been trying
          to give you the swiss army knife
          you’ll need for this fucked up life.

The poem goes on to say she’ll also need a lightsaber, a halberd, a blowtorch, a slingshot. He says:

          These you’ll need, and there will never be          

          a good time to tell you why
          to tell you that men will want
          to rape you that men will want

          to cage and burn your body
          if you refuse. And why
          when you are afraid of me

          I think good
          wish me dead—
          what’s more useful

          to a little girl
          than knowing
          men are dangerous.

What a heartbreaking realization for a father, to feel it’s necessary to instruct his daughter this way. This theme of protecting his daughter goes over the top in the poem “Teaching My Daughter To Survive the Apocalypse,” in which he says, “You may have to shoot a man / in a tarp shuffling down the road / looking for food, looking for shelter.” We don’t know if this is another one of his dreams or if he’s speaking in real-time, but it’s chilling either way. He says:

          A limit has been set for compassion
          And there will be no exceeding it.
          How hard do you make your heart for this land?

In “Drown is a Verb,” he goes over water safety with his daughter, and in “Away From the Windows,” what they’ll do in case of a tornado. One of the things he says is “I’ll try to act like I’m not afraid / so that you aren’t afraid. I’ll read to you.” At the end of the poem the daughter asks why a car doesn’t kill you if it runs over you. He replies “…we can’t help but to build / what we can’t control and sometimes that ends you / and sometimes it helps bring you to a place you’ve never been.” What an intriguing answer. It could apply to a marriage, any relationship, or life itself. 

Throughout these “daughter” poems, there is a repeated pattern of questions she asks, and answers the father gives, as exemplified in the long title of the poem “Because You Asked About the Line between Happy and Sad and I Said I’m Neither I’m Just Blah and I Said Does That Make Sense and You Said Yes.” He describes himself as “decades old pavement / having been trodden on, beaten / down by rain.” The comparison goes on to say:

          …but still here, still riding up
          over that hill and hugging
          that turn to the courthouse
          and wearing my holes like
          inside each one is a seed
          winged from a tree, perfect
          shelter for some small
          creature’s desperate meal.

This final image of his holes, which suggest to me his hurts or wounds, is one of hope, because he’s acting as if each one contains a seed—an image of growth and possibilities. The second last poem of the collection, “There Won’t Be Any More Sonnets But,” also contains images of hope. The title leads into the first line of the poem:

          there’s this five minutes on the mezzanine
          of the Opera House, your hand resting
          on her left leg and mine on her right
          as she watches the ballerinas below.

Such a beautiful moment shared between father, mother, and daughter, even though the title suggests they are already divorced. But then the poem goes on to ask a haunting question:

                                     …Why has it been
          years since we both touched our
          daughter at the same time?

Such a sense of longing, regret and loss in the above lines. The poem ends exquisitely:

                                              …I don’t know
          which of us drew our hand away first,
          but I know, at some point, the curtain fell,
          and every one of us was called to applaud.

This image of the curtain falling, and everyone applauding, is to me both sad and hopeful, both literal and metaphorical. They’ve shared this experience of the opera together, and they’re continuing to share their life together (at times), and apart at other times. It suggests they’re also applauding for “the curtain falling” on their marriage, for all they shared while they were married, and also for their moving into new lives in which they continue to share in their daughter’s life.

The author does a very nuanced job of portraying an inquisitive, caring daughter and a loving father trying to be honest, but not wanting to reveal too much to hurt, frighten, or worry her. This interplay between the two echoes wonderfully throughout the poems. The final poem, “Bone Brush,” closes with the daughter asking about death and telling her father she’s afraid to die. His beautiful reply ends the book:

          I tell you what I’ve heard and what I hope is right, that you will
          live a long life and death will be careful with you, not painful,
          slowly eroding you, untying the bow that anchors you here,
          a slow drift across a sky you find friendly and expectant.

Christopher McCurry’s collection, Open Burning, examines the complexities of relationships—one ending and one deepening. These poems vibrate with longing, vulnerability, unflinching honesty, and tenderness. They’re threaded together with an intricate network of repeated, layered images that rivet you into the intense and unforgettable world McCurry creates. 

You can find Christopher McCurry online at or

No comments:

Post a Comment