In Elijah Burrell’s new collection, Skies of Blur, Burrell provides mashups of the inner and outer, of the living and the dead, of song and dirge, faith and doubt as the reader journeys with the poet through despair. He shows us the ruptures that occur where opposing forces meet and the transformation necessary to move through those spaces and emerge whole, or at least patched. The poems themselves range from free verse to formally inventive, and from straightforward to enigmatic.
The opening poem “PRELUDE / HEADSPACE” picks up where Burrell’s previous collection Troubler ended, foregrounding the poet’s grief at his mother’s death. The poem’s title signals that this is the headspace of our speaker, the lens through which to view the rest of the collection.
The poem recounts the Biblical miracle of Simon Peter walking on water, the speaker wondering “if boat and doubt sound slant” in the original language and imagining what it must have been like to be Simon Peter:
When he sank, did he see the wink in Christ’s
eyes? How it must have felt to walk
on water, even if just for a second.
To be on his own, and not, and feel
his heart full with spirit but cold in the sea.
The speaker is not unlike Simon Peter, wanting to step out of the boat in faith, wanting to believe, yet sensing the gap between himself and divinity. Here we have only half a baptism—Burrell ends before Simon Peter is pulled up. And so, we begin a collection with submersion into a cold sea and the uncertainty of what swimming or being saved would even look like. In the final stanza, the speaker sings,
“God is good / all the time,
plants songs on my tongue, /
took that mom of mine.”
The poet makes plain the dualism of believing God is good while acknowledging God both gives and takes away. If Burrell’s previous collection ended with shattering grief, Skies of Blur is an attempt to gather the pieces. He’s got family, faith, and music, but as with Troubler, the poet must complete a spirit quest to set things right. We won’t know until the end if he’ll succeed, and along the way, he’ll remind us: “The water drowns me in a language / you could never understand.”
The speaker of these poems is crossing the proverbial desert, everything stripped, despair a constant companion. Burrell brings the prophetic without putting ideas over form and sonic language. In elegant lines, “THE DISUNITED MIND” opens:
I find the field planted within me
when the growing season breaks. It breaks
like high fever, like fallen rock on a mountain
road, like a tender fist against brick.
He’s reached his mezzo cammin and he’s lost the path which does not stray. Burrell knows the epic journeys of his poetic forebears, and he weaves them into his own difficult journey through worlds:
All night I stretched my arms beneath the ash,
beneath limbs in my midlife imagination.
This was the year I lost my song.
All day I ran my hands against the ash,
tried to find a place to hang my heart.
That night I remembered it’s willow and harp
Grief is immense yet private. It hollows us out, leaving us in layers of past and present, fully inhabiting neither space. One must find a way to emerge. The third section marks a shift in the collection as the speaker journeys into and through his grief. “STRAY FIELD” opens with an epigraph from The Irish Times explaining that “stray field” is the term used for fields “considered to be potential portals to another dimension.” According to the article, these fields had “ the ability to disorient you and seemingly transport you to somewhere unrecognisable.”
The speaker is haunted as he senses his mother, knowing, “This is real and this / is dream.” He’s in the field, which is akin to the world upside down, a liminal space both real and not. He senses he’s breathed in by the wind and then he’s back on his couch, his mother’s hand in his. He gets what he wants, what he couldn’t have in the earlier poem “HITCHHIKERS MIGHT BE ESCAPING INMATES” in which he must return his mother to the prison of memory, no matter how much he wants to keep her by his side.
Once in the stray field, even waking isn’t a reliable signal that all is back to normal. In “YONDER COME YOUR MAN” the speaker wakes in a House of Balloons, where Time incarnate hands him a knife, the speaker stabs himself, and Time directs the speaker to keep the knife inside him. The wound blooms wildflowers and the poem ends with the speaker listening for birdsong and awaiting his “winter feathers.”
While the Time figure recalls the ominous spirit guide Troubler, the speaker doesn’t have an equivalent guide this time:
I needed a divine guide and they gave me Troubler.
I need a divine guide and they give me me.
God help a man—scraping through these half-mast days—
absent and drifting through tall grass in his own stray field.
If Burrell’s first collection Skin of the River was indebted to Homer, Skies of Blur owes Ovid. More than a guide, metamorphosis is needed. The speaker receives his feathers and is rechristened BLUEBIRD. And before the speaker finds his way, he must come face to face with a bull, Mr. Night, a fellow stray.
Just when a fight might ensue, Mr. Night sees himself in Bluebird’s troubled eyes. The battle is avoided as Bluebird realizes Mr. Night is angry too. They realize their pain is not directed at one another, nor can it be solved in a clash—they are on the same side.
In the final poem of section three “LEAVING THE STRAY,” Mr. Night tells Bluebird to fly away, and the speaker acknowledges, “Though he was sent to end me, he sends me / back to begin again. Or try.” The speaker exits the field through a break in the thicket and is home, in his kitchen. Once there, he has an encounter, perhaps with his mother, perhaps with the love of his life and mother of his children:
She stands in the open door and knocks.
Her stare topples me. It makes this world,
that used to feel so small and shut
beneath me, open. Her smile is the door
with the bell above. When it’s thrown wide,
I say above the chime, Yes,
I’m open I’m open I’m open
The speaker, perhaps, had to become Bluebird in order to navigate the skies of blur. In the end, something unexpected emerges from the grief—the realization of his own mortality, brought into sharp focus by his own role as a parent, and the profound responsibility of caring for another. The young ask a parent for a narrative to make sense of it all, which forces the parent to construct that story—what to keep, what to leave out—and to do so in such a way that the child makes meaning or comes to understand rather than despair. The speaker’s engagement with his children becomes part coping, part assembling these broken parts.
The narrative may not be complete, but there’s some consolation in stepping into those shoes: the speaker might be saved by his own fatherhood. The final image of the collection is of the daughter playing the guitar, moving “down the neck like a surgeon closing a wound / that’s lain open too long.” If the death of his mother has him sinking and has shaken his faith, the relentless engagement as parent buoys him from going too far into the depths; too much is at stake.
Skies of Blur is a compelling read because not even the speaker knows where the journey will go. The outer world’s strangeness impinges on the speaker’s inner landscape, and vice versa, in unpredictable ways. Ambitious and earnest, these skillfully crafted poems are not afraid to take risks—a reminder that sometimes we have to walk the edge to find the center.
Paulette Guerin lives in Arkansas and teaches writing, literature, and film. Her poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Best New Poets, epiphany, Contemporary Verse 2, Carve Magazine, and others. A suite of 25 poems appears in the anthology Wild Muse: Ozarks Nature Poetry. She is the author of Wading Through Lethe and the chapbook Polishing Silver. Her screenplay, Irish Rose, was recently optioned by Cinterra Entertainment. Her website is pauletteguerin.com.