Poetry Review: Praise the Unburied by Clara Burghelea

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September 23, 2021 by The Citron Review

Praise the Unburied
Clara Burghelea

(Chaffinch Press, 2021)
“Grief cannot keep the world from spinning”
from “The hues of April blues in Long Island”

Praise the Unburied, Clara Burghelea’s second full-length book of poems, is an unforgettable body of work that spans much of the poet’s life. Unburied could be taken as a synonym for alive, but the connotation is more complex and extends beyond mortality. In this collection, Burghelea renders vivid the impermanence of the lifespan, the bonds of family and dreams and their power to haunt, exhilarate, or console—as well as meals, walks by the water, the feminine electric, and ink in service to the unforgettable line, image, or poem like a tattoo that refuses to fade.

When assembling a collection that spans decades, there is a risk of it becoming a series of mile markers (i.e., this event was important; this one is too). Here, the poet stitches verse that is bound not by dates but by themes—not by trauma, but by sometimes painful growth and realization. The sections are as follows and without dividers; in this way, Ghostification flows into A Tincture for Wounds and so on, a sequence that builds and becomes without telegraphing its metamorphosis. 

  1. Ghostification 
  2. A Tincture for Wounds
  3. How to turn poetry prompt #5 into girl power
  4. Self-medicating with St. John’s Wort
  5. Some Kind of Love

Early we encounter Burghelea’s late Romanian mother and childhood in that country in which rations and regime did not dim love. There is an immediacy to the verse, imbued with craft, that helps me see what her mother was like. From the first part of “Portrait of my mother in the middle of things”:    

The way she relished in sitting with daily life,
peeling potatoes for hours in a row, then doing
her nails burgundy red. Forgetting is essential,
she said as she dunked her fingers into hot water
only to come out perfectly polished, no smudge

The verb choices (relished, peeling, forgetting, dunked) in this poem align with a woman who knew how to live life. Dunked is not an exotic word, but it is active, rarely used, and works in this context. Here, the dunking occurs after hours of peeling potatoes, an effective contrast and one that helps show the mother’s efficiency (and personality too). 

To italicize Forgetting is essential brings an added layer of voice into the poem, another contrast. Relish is typically used as a transitive verb; here, it is intransitive, and the syntax of the line benefits, emphasizing the mom. She didn’t relish sitting, she relished in sitting. Note the alliterative “peeling potatoes” and later, “perfectly polished,” spaced just far apart, the way an off-rhyme catches three lines later. Burgundy is specific, sharp, and balances the more narrative progression of the poem. 

I linger on choices in these six lines because their precision, feeling, and balance are characteristic of poetic choices throughout the entire collection. Some poems are nostalgic or wistful, some empowering and defiant. Some are linear and narrative-driven, some lyric and move at a faster clip. From “Mal de mer”:

Behind the fissures, salty wounds. Their ebb and flow healing bouts
of the Ionian. A precise animal, cutting waves, one breath holding
the next, sand bruises. Air singing of torpor, secluded scent of the armpits… 

This poem is located in A Tincture for Wounds, and it is quicker and more staccato than “Portrait of my mother…” One can read these lines in their assigned order, with careful attention to line breaks (“of the Ionian. A precise animal, cutting waves”), or in a different order. Reading the poem diagonally from left to right and down reveals this: “Behind the fissures / A precise animal / Air singing of torpor / your body next to mine / A batch of turnings…”  

I cannot speculate as to Burghelea’s intention with line breaks and syntax in this poem, but I do know it’s difficult to create an image-driven poem with this much versatility and that holds together so well, in keeping with the poet’s voice and mood of the surrounding poems. Thinking again of the collection, I love that even though ghosts are a motif in Praise the Unburied (“… and there are no rooms in our bodies without ghosts” from “What occasionally makes sense”), they do not haunt every poem. 

Ghosts cannot suppress the image of children singing their hearts out in the sun in their cravate roșii (red neckties that every Romanian child wore during Nicolae Ceaușescu’s communist regime *from Burghelea’s Notes), nor do ghosts take over on a morning at the beach with family in “At the villa”; though Burghelea watches her children closely, wanting fiercely the best for them, she allows herself to savor the light of the day that frames her kin. From the poem: 

This talcum-dusted morning, M and S gathered sea
treasures: a small urchin, two crabs, a speckled mussel.
Behind a pinkish stone, they spotted a honeyed anemone.
Let’s call it Mona! they cried, asking for approval.
They placed each of their beauties in plastic cups,

But this is not our home. We cannot leave our sea behind!
A shred of kind pain on his tanned cheeks.
I hold myself behind the lacey curtains. I wish my love
could seam their world and save them from its rage.

A mother’s will is bone, each breath perforating the lungs.
S and M rest their foreheads on the plastic cups,

their silhouettes a spell of fabric against the sky’s lavender.                                                                                                          

The metaphor “will is bone” is at once concrete and ethereal. Only after reading the collection a few times does it strike me that Burghelea investigates that metaphor in many of these poems, but with fresh approaches. Sometimes, that iron will is less about being a mother and more about self-discovery and carving out time for the self, a self that has to appreciate an endless flow of days, transition between day and night, the body’s rhythms, the capacity of the word to harm or heal, the capacity of human interactions to linger, fester, or endure.

From “Girlhood lessons”: 

Before you are exiled by narrative
make room for your wicked views,
know that perfect happiness is hardly
a match to fleeting instances of awe.

I like that Burghelea operates from a different POV here, using “you.” We see her in the poem or what could be her, but we also appreciate the universal female, needing to strike out where she sees fit and not where society has told her to go. The danger of this poem is its slipping into didacticism with imperative phrases like “turn a blind eye…” or “strike root in things.” However, the poet is careful not to begin every phrase with direction, layering it with keen observation and image (e.g. a woman’s clavicle), and we trust the speaker’s experience. “Girlhood lessons” is from a section of the book called “How to turn poetry prompt #5 into girl power,” which is also the name of a poem from that section. In that poem, poetry is offered as catharsis, again from a “you” perspective. “You can think of your favorite number between five and fifteen.” Prompt #5 has a similar tone to “Girlhood lessons,” but it acts more like an invitation to try one’s hand at form, in this case a ghazal, and let go. 

A ghazal, a Persian form of poetry, typically has between five and fifteen couplets; often it is written about love, loss, and a coming to terms with the beauty of it all; moreover, the poet includes his/her/their name in the last line, which brings a kind of ownership to the poem. What an apt suggestion of form for the intended audience of this poem! I also like how the act of counting syllables leads to territory outside the world of the poem. For example, quarantine is mentioned and not in a somber light. 

Burghelea does not repeat the same formula in this collection. “A poem about things I became good at losing,” from Self-medicating with St. John’s Wort, is a list of lost items from the poet’s past, though the order and weight of those items is nonlinear. 

dawns burning in, before I am fleshed and ready
hairpins in between comfort pillows, coat pockets,
or rainy sidewalks, my mind over raw poems that
bloom inside your mouth, slips of paper…

I don’t want to reveal too many lost items or moments in this poem but consider the associations of the opening four lines—the intensity of the opener, followed by comfort, raw awakening, and then “slips of paper,” which could be connected to poems or something else. In the right context, a slip of paper constitutes powerful evidence. We learn more about Burghelea in this poem (and throughout the collection) and without the telling that hinders some narrative poems. 

Though this collection examines object permanence—people, rituals, emotions, and more—there is a luminous system of gravity that holds it in place. Perhaps that can be attributed to Burghelea’s considerable poetic powers and life experience. Perhaps the origin of the grounded quality of Praise the Unburied should remain a mystery, beckoning us to return, to enjoy, and without a barrage of questions. 

I return and return again: at the line level, because I feel something about the figures in this collection, and to reflect on the urgency with which I live life.

From “Impermanence” from V. Some Kind of Love: 

A man reads braille on your ribs, fingertips
soaking in flesh. His face, a splintered sun.
He will make you coffee in the years to come
and not once, scorch your ruffled lips.

When I look up, there he is, thrusting his arm
through the twinned chambers of my heart,
resurfacing within the lustered geometry
of a belated snowflake. Snow smelling sessions.

There are anchors, and even those anchors, made of iron or flesh or bone, are only anchors for a while. Permanence in impermanence. The last four lines in “Impermanence” show what Burghelea’s poetry does so well: movement, balance, tension, image, pathos, pacing… There is “will is bone,” but this time from the man’s action. That we get to appreciate such love up close but from afar, such pristine treatment of language and image (“… resurfacing within the lustered geometry / of a belated snowflake.”) is a treat indeed. 



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