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We Look Like This

We Look Like This, Dan Burt's first full collection (which includes poems from, and greatly expands on, pamphlets he has published in the past five years with Michael Schmidt's Lintott Press), meets his own childhood and family history head-on. Born to a violent if admirably driven father whose parents escaped murder by Ukrainian Cossacks, and a distant mother whose family were "tough Jews" living on the edge of the law, Burt's was a gritty upbringing in South Philadelphia. We Look Like This maps his escape from these harsh environs - working as a youngster in the family butcher's shop from dawn till dusk; viewing his parents' marriage as "a bare knuckle fight to the death" - first to Cambridge, England, where he read English, then to Yale and a career in law. Mixing working-class roots and mean streets with college cloisters and Ivy League privilege, Burt is forever trying to make sense of his many-sided identity, though in a commendably unsolipsistic way. "All the dark years haunt me", reflects one poem, "Not what happened.../ but warnings missed / because I could not gauge what others felt".

In terms of its structure and themes, We Look Like This mimics, in conscious fashion, that most influential of post-war American volumes in poetry, Robert Lowell's Life Studies (1959). Like Lowell, Burt favours muscular verse, typically loosely metred and rhymed; this serves as an effective means of dealing with some raw emotional material, though as in Lowell, the brassy sonics can sometimes drown out the poetry. The poems are arranged either side of a meaty prose memoir, "Certain Windows", which parallels Lowells "91 Revere Street", though where Lowell wrestled with his elite ancestry and childhood memories of Sunday dinners with naval officcers, Burt posits his immigrant heritage, and a world of feuds, fights and shadowy deals in which he grew up fast. Burt is, he states, keen to avoid "romantic reconstruction", trying instead, "to record as accurately as possible", and whatever misgivings we might have about the practicalities of such claims, the approach yields some undoubtedly gripping results. Take Burt's description of his father Joe, the book's complex central character, whose "lust and rage beset his every age" and "fists rose at the slightest provocation", or of Philadelphia's old town, where "prostitution, gambling, fencing, contract murder, loan sharking, political corruption and crime of every sort were the daily trade". It is a consistently absorbing account, even as it segues into slightly more serene territory, recalling Burt's father's passion in later life for coastal fishing. "Trade", one of a number of poems that recast these prose scenes in verse, vividly captures this elemental expanse:
And pause - to watch sedge sway on flats,
Geese rise honking from wetland choirs,
The sun decline, a whirl of gnats
And the Light flick on at Barnegat.
Arranged into sections, the poems make up around two-thirds of We Look Like This. They move from touching elegies to Burt's parents, through punchy yet comtemplative sonnets that mingle childhood, community and (specifically Jewish) history, to reflections on old age and death, and the stories traced in people's faces and familiar places. Engaged and often engaging as they are, an appetite for the click-shut end-rhyme can lead to clumsy syntax and lines that are rhythmically askew - a particular problem in section five, a series exploring the shifting emotional terrain of a love affair. The book might have been more powerful for some pruning of its slighter pieces. Yet if Burt sometimes seems more straightjacketed than at home in his tighter forms, when they come off they make for compelling reading. "Modern Painters" is Burt at his best, examining in pulsing, rhymed octets the thickly impasto'd painting by Frank Auerbach that is reproduced on the book's jacket. Here, as elsewhere, the writing lays bare the sometimes brutal face of humanity, while striving for sense and understanding:
We look like this after things fall apart;
The painting is an autopsy report
From an inquest where war took the part
Of coroner.

first published in the Times Literary Supplement, August 10 2012