BLACK SUMMER, Reviewed By Mather Schneider

BLACK SUMMER: New & Selected Poems
Kung Fu Treachery Press
234 pages

Things you will not see in Wayne F. Burke’s bio for his new book, Black Summer: pronouns, accrued university degrees, editorships at magazines, grants received, where he teaches, how beautiful his wife is, how he loves gardening, the name of his cat. How he got a book published without these things in his bio, I have no idea. He has been reported.

Wayne F. Burke is 65 (going on 66) years old. He reminds me a little of Ed Galing, who wrote poems into his 90’s. When I used to see Galing in a publication I always read his poems first not because he was old but because I knew he wouldn’t bullshit me. I knew there would be no slickness or pretentiousness, no metaphors stretched out so far you forgot where they started, no look-at-me-being-a-poet, pat me on the head, junk. Just a sensitive, sometimes fucked-up, lonely person writing about the moments of his life. 

There are lots of stray hairs in these poems. Yes, Burke, like Galing, ends lines with prepositions sometimes. Yes, his endings fizzle sometimes. Yes, he’s an old cis white guy who doesn’t hide his flaws. All unforgiveable sins these days, when most poets pretend to be saints. 

Burke is no saint, and what fresh air that is:  

“I walked upstream through the 
woods, among the trees 
and rocks 
to a quiet place 
below the falls 
I took my pants off 
and sat 
in the sun 
I was having a herpes attack 
boils on my dick 
and thought the sun 
might fix me up a little
as I listened to the river…” 

One out of 6 people have herpes but you don’t see it mentioned much in poetry. Usually when a poet sits down by the river it’s to tell the reader how enlightened they are, which always somehow seems to indicate how UNENLIGHTENED the rest of us are. Why didn’t you USE A CONDOM? 

At least he’s getting laid by real women and not watching porn. He’s an old timer. Never married, though, at least not in these poems. Now that he’s retired, maybe he will meet a nice Mexican girl. 

Burke asked a “famous” poet to read his poems and wrote this about it:  

“he was known as the poet of loneliness and
was married to the poetess of bereavement.
Before leaving, I asked what he really thought of
my things, and
he said, well
they are all on the surface
no depth to them;
read other things beside literature, he suggested
like “Kramer’s book on aesthetics.”
I thanked him and he left.
I was the poet of surfaceness.”

I like that he says “surfaceness” instead of “surfaces,” as if to poke fun at himself and at the same time to make fun of the “famous” poet. Of course, the “famous” poet meant that his poems were superficial. What this means to me is the “famous” poet couldn’t see beyond the “surface” of the poems, which are not refined or polished as most poets like them to be. In my view, poems that are most polished on the surface don’t have more depth, just more make-up.     

Fighting and real-world conflict are everywhere in these poems:


standing on the main street of Framingham, Massachusetts
holding my thumb up
in the air
and watching all the cars in the world
drive by me
and all the drivers look like assholes
to me
and a car goes past with some punks inside
and one punk gives me the middle-finger
and I turn and chase the car
as the punks point and
laugh at me until
their car slows then stops at a red light
and I gain ground
and the smiles of the punks disappear
their eyes widen like doll’s eyes
and the car squeals out and
I chase it to the
next light
and the punks in the back seat hop around
like monkeys in a cage
as I close the gap again
and the car shoots ahead
and I chase it to the next red light
which the car blows through
and I give up,
out of breath
still pissed
but not really
a bunch of punks.

I thought this poem was funny and sad at the same time. Who can’t feel the desperation of this narrator, running down the street like a crazy pissed-off loser? Who hasn’t wanted to do the same? The ending lines tell us what we already feel: this is not just about surfaces.  

Burke makes me laugh. I smiled and laughed throughout this book:


a squirrel in the park, plump
7 to 8 inches in height
svelte gray coat
attacked a girl
who later died
and the cops went berserk
guns blasting and
killed two hundred squirrels
but none of the witnesses
to the attack
could positively ID the perp
so the cops put out an APB with
an artist’s sketch of
the killer-squirrel
which brought 1000 calls
into the station house
as of this writing
the suspect remains at large
up a tree
in some hole in a wall.

Burke’s childhood poems are some of the best in the collection:


a hot muggy day 
no one to play with 
all the kids gone 
to the beach 
Charlie Baguette told me I could go 
with him 
his family 
I ran home for my suit 
and when I returned 
they had already gone…
I climbed the tree in the yard 
and sat 
hidden by dinner-plate-sized leaves. 
I picked my nose until it bled;
meanwhile, the sky turned milky-white and 
I was glad (maybe 
the Baguette’s would be drowned 
in the coming storm). 
I climbed down and lay in the 
driveway on hot cinder 
that felt like sand; 
I hoped I got run over.
I watched a bird 
a speck 
far above 
it disappeared.

In another poem, the narrator child is waiting for “gramps” to come and give him a ride home from “pee wee” football practice, but gramps is late. The kid climbs a tree while waiting and someone throws a rock at him, calling him a raccoon. Kids climb trees all the time, but in this situation, it highlights the isolation of the boy. Gramps finally shows up and the poem ends with Gramps giving “a mumbled apology.” Not a very dramatic ending. Maybe Burke could have “worded” it a different way. Maybe a certain type of “line break” would have made it better. But if you’ve ever been the last kid standing, waiting for a ride home, from anywhere, you’ll understand.   

I really liked this sweet poem, “Ice Cream.” An editor would surely quip about the title and the lack of punctuation, but would that really change anything? Would that change the idiocy of pubescent kids? Would that change the innocence? Should we refine natural metaphor into over-your-head metaphor? In order to write a simple poem like this, you have to have grown old and stayed young at the same time:  

Ice Cream    

A maple walnut ice cream cone
at Eileen’s Dairy bar 
where Rose 
a teenage waitress 
Eileen’s daughter 
tall and slender, 
“a rose yet to bloom” 
I told Johnny Garibaldi 
who had asked what I thought 
of her 
the words coming unbidden from 
my lips 
he blabbed it 
and I regretted many times over 
a rose yet to bloom 
shouted on the street 
on the school bus 
I stayed away from Eileen’s until 
desperate for an ice cream 
pistachio, butter pecan, black raspberry
I put my thin dime 
into Rose’s hand 
and she did not say 
“thank you.”

Several short poems are included in the book. I don’t know if they’re haiku or what, but I like them:

Palm Sunday—
my brother and I
whip each other with palms


My jacket—
hung by the neck
until spring

This is a good book of poetry. Like most books of poetry, it could be cut by a third. The problem is, every person who reads it might want to cut a different third. Not bad, for an old cis white guy who doesn’t even have a cat in his bio and probably never been to a writer’s conference in his whole miserable life.


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