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Poet's Sampler: Toni Burge

“The Blue Foxes” is the title section of Toni Burge’s meditative and speculative book-length poem in two alternating voices. Margaret and Charles, estranged lovers and former ballet partners, negotiate the often difficult details of their shared past while considering the shifting conditions of their individual futures. Margaret contends with the debilitating disease that has ended their lives as dancers; Charles begins to reinvent himself as a performance/installation artist. The section here is in part Margaret’s response to Charles’s suggestion that he mount an installation based on Margaret’s career and fame, as well as her battle with illness.

The dilemma of self that we find in Burge’s remarkable work recalls the psychological intensity of Sylvia Plath as well as the powerful and dramatic staging of voice in the poetry of Frank Bidart. Her poems often exhibit a dazzling performative grace and a complexity of syntactic movement within a sweeping, operatic scope. —David St. John

 

The Blue Foxes

The sun could rise a little quicker rise (through the tangled spine of the vine     limbs shorn
the leaves of disease shaking)—a little quicker

blessèd wings beating     breaks     (believable) lightning-like chases     (and yours of me?)
stages of aphid/green pools dissolving in my window’s black metal frame     it re-fills     blue
                                                                       (theme-ish lab-ish) blue          Mediterranean blue
still it mimics an aquarium     and two sparrows do return
diving from one thick sawed-off stump of the azalea     only to hop to another

but they aren’t trying very hard     allowing the now unobscured quick shifts of air to reshape
those waves—wings too quickly      flying on     (sky signs)                         splat of  sun

(feathery sky signs                  cobwebbing rays     apertures in the same frame I’ve prayed into    
                                                                             refracting     collapsing     (even now I am
not humbled)

I see myself carried through:      a breezy tenor along silken avenues
someone looking like me a window frame blearing her side (con/refiguring freight)
                                                                                                                                  —lake

*
Charles did you ever make love to take someone away from themselves?
from the one thing—a grief or sorrow say a shame—they could not give themselves to

because it gave always so much of itself—
to be before beneath it     inside     you     to make it different     breathing the before (my breath)

             exploring unweathering whatever was hurting them and is still

*
well I didn’t not once did it occur to me...     Principle...Prima Ballerina...

“what gives receives”—the mailman said so—(shame
anger)     I think now it is how I will always make love     to anger to your body     yes

but to come between what you did to me what’s happening to me and what it’s doing
to you—there are too many personalities in that to bite flesh     I remember simply skin

*
but love     love    I don’t know—I could make love to you now
and all the other (I have to believe) would fall away otherwise how cruel could I  be

all these months trying to persuade you      come back to me     I believe I do
(enough?)  make me     Feel    Respond     I am different     changed now

I promise—my face is small (moonlit/starlit/portal of opera-pale skin)          with what I’ve
                                                                                                                                           become

it’s where I’ll remain (my face)—shepherd-lanterning the willy-nilly of my remains
—that you say I might with the light-skipping current of my arms turn the shore of yours
                                                                                                                          and pull you closer

then I (alone) might know you knowing my discreet touch guiding     without ever turning to see
            —the heralding moon lies (my face strays with undoing)—moonlit dustlit portal of black birds

            uncatchable as the quirky arm’s casting-staff—               river of body

*
                                                                                                                                  (a detail)
it feels like rapture then it feels ...

nothing but color seeping from every sight lied to     was my body limned among
bright poppies and raffaloes of light thin hand-printed papers & you shielding the sun

as my eyes burst clear blue into being you’d already disappeared     the sky overhead
                                                                                                                                                 vast

*
whispers echoing in white marble spaces  “she nearly exists”     (is it here?) a stiletto
your video zeroing in on the exposed silver the thorny high-heel ticking of some citizen
                                                                                                                                                 understudy?
                                                            silver     “breathing—she’s alive     nearly...”              —stiletto screwing
                                                                                                                       (stigmata) my slipper  
wine marbling white walls—shades/beyond

a feeling of falling you imagine spreading my thighs in the waves of white
my back rising again moaning towards you     the audience itself      like elderly Roman

women at Mass     rising stiffly     their palms uplifted     pressing back the pitch of black—
snow radiating from the palms of the priest

*
could you really know     yet alone strangers?     because I am now free
of the foliate azalea’s stain     visible (a claret day through cranberry night) and I am now...

I should like to be engulfed     —so suspendible believable (available)—you see

*
and their eyes are catching yellow but each pair of my cedar blue foxes I’m separating
with the polestar strike of my scissors     guiding them to opposing points

on the white walls swelling and
                                                                                                                         dizzying
with flurries of snow from my own vertigo
they file back into their single photo-frame of     WE are a pact

are again the unmoving and unobservant—I observe them though the yellow of their eyes
(I see now)     says otherwise     if I could lead them     I might now walk out onto the water

*
they did not need to know more than facsimile—that would be instinct

*
and it’s not me you love   is it or is it?
convince me Charles convince me you love me     (only then will I help you)

really like before     exactly
your tongue dropping the 1/2 inch from my belly button     to the diagonal

hues of rose hemming in the camillia-shaped scar
carving in shades softer than petals—if you could then

yes     field your (art) refugees within me as within a race from darkness winding
through the early hills you once loved—those outlines of darkening declensions—but you could

seek us out then—taking the whole basket we’d once picked to describe the virtues over
                                                                                                                     strawberries

each one delicately bleeding off my tongue—could you?
well these are not arguments for me     not exactly or precisely

My Dear your lips are apples or those burgundy berries we picked late last fall

*
—and what of the breath we did not achieve?     too long too short     the lives refracting
refuse all the shadows of her shape
                                                                                               —and my shape?

*
blowsy poppy in late day light if I look hard where the lines go     light
red silk an overlay of organza raspy at the material     (witness)

an old lady in the outer room (the nurse’s mother?—she spinning     laughter)
the chatty anger (nearly yours) of the lived-too-long-on-this-earth for some young woman’s

undelivered duties and cigarettes—that I wish I could see (is it why she keeps returning?)  
in this mirror smoke blooms and cascades where I thought light was—the last folds of the
                                                                                                                   hem streaming

hair long-flowing—all the dress in the drapes I mean

*
                                                            My dearest changeable   is it?     have you?
                                                                                                 your mind is it turning you back

through the cedar shadows?    your car lights—lashes tilting the high beams—lashes letting
                                                                                                                                        go
—how many for the unseasonable snows swirling my body

*
—I chill    grow adamant (the body’s waking in the spectral stage’s thrown lights) my opening—covetous
my anger (my body weeping desire) and ...you...you?      how long until the shadows

pillow the camellia-shaped scar     softer     melting to amber off my nipples
the moist     the tart     the seeds     (so exact) you will love me               light—  

the petals shaking light no longer shake          without season               bereft
I don’t know how to close what’s opened                       —you asked

what came first?—that gown—optimism—anticipatory visits from our troupe—
pure white and yellow roses—extravagance for hope and healing

—small cursive—wildflowers     inkings of my understudy successor and sorry
freesia     “console-me”     sunflowers     “endure-me”     mums     the  “last-me’s”
                                                                                                                                unrecognizable
           for the expectations time’s departing with     while the limbs cannot

*
                                                               (the bouquet today—an orchestra of breaths bursting
                                                                                                the skirts of an untuned ensemble...)

yours—the stiff muggy jasmine claims the air like smoke lingering from an unattended pipe
                                                                                                                         ...of all I had
known & will be—they’re turning (the petals) if not back then... and I am returning them to you

*
in the violet light of dawn my own lap smears with watery linen from the slicked catalogue
                                                                                                              we once flipped through

elegant     (tireless wind-tapped pages)     too long          your fingers arguing
linnets shirring beneath your palmed-sky—cross-stitched birds in currents of blue linen
                                                                                                                     I did it for what sang

currents of rising—your blonde bones made pliable in thin fingers arching down
                                                                                                                       like bamboo bridges

over the swiftly rising flat—I did it (I believe/I could) in the shirred wind
of the next moment (linnets releasing) for     the song of your fingers splintering the pages

they don’t     ever     come to life     now they come to life in the pine needles blown
dancing the wind seeking my window     before settling a proscenium of burnt soldiers
                                                                                                      on the sill     will you love me

so exactly

(then) did they
then the orchids     then the mourning     then the breeze of one’s own unexpected departure


Toni Burge studied at USC and Boston University. She lives in Santa Monica, California.

David St. John's The Face: A Novella in Verse, will appear in the spring of 2004. He teaches in the English department at the University of Southern California.

Originally published in the April/May 2004 issue of Boston Review.



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