In the opening poem of Michelle Y. Burke’s poetry collection Animal Purpose (Ohio University Press) she tells of a horse that breaks away from her grip as she leads it from the barn to the riding arena. It runs wild in the field, trailing the reins and still bearing its saddle and bridle. She’d been lulled to calmness by the gentleness of the moment preceding this, a gentleness she’d projected onto the massive animal, and its sudden energy had surprised her. She catches up with him, both still skittish, and leads him back to the barn with what remains of the reins, “matching, momentarily, / his animal purpose to mine.”
From here, the book explores what we have in common with wild things, and what we do not. Sometimes in these verses we are gazing through windows at animals ignoring us, reacting to us, or totally unaware of us at all. In one such poem, we’re shown the contrast between our own self-sabotaging insecurities and the openhearted and eager assumption of love any good dog carries with it.
A person can spend her whole life at the window, peering in, wondering why she wasn’t invited to the party, but a dog will wait, wagging its tail expecting any moment to be let in.
Sometimes the window is also a mirror, showing us our own timid and wild nature. An owl caught raiding the hen house is shown mercy by the farmer who knows the wide-eyed raptor isn’t a thief but a fellow hunter who needs to eat and shares his tastes. These moments are never heavy-handed, and usually just juxtapose images together so we can trace our own lines between them.
Many of the glimpses of nature we are offered are simply nestled into the text, connected to what surrounds them by the thinnest of gossamer webs. These fragile things are there like pillow shots in an old Japanese movie, seemingly unrelated to the context of the broader piece, but working on our hearts even if our minds don’t see connections. One such cutaway, from the lengthy poem “Homing,” provides one of the loveliest and most delicate images of the collection:
a juvenile deer sunlit and still on my porch.
It shivered at the edges of its being
like a blossoming cherry tree.
The poet, of course, lives in the world, and these poems must move between moments of wild grace and the structures, real and figurative, of modern society. The poems that more directly look at professional and relational concerns never quite match the subtle craft of the nature verses, and feel overly considered. At points it can feel like Burke is trying to insert more pessimism and weariness than she really feels, though it could merely be she writes with easier grace when gazing on beauty than grit. Take a poem in which she discusses sitting on a porch swing in Ohio with her husband, fielding hypotheticals for their future:
A great job in Kansas or a lousy one
in New York? A long, amicable marriage
or a short, passionate affair? A house with a porch
or an apartment with a view? We’ve chosen
New York, lousy jobs, and a view –
the marriage is still up for grabs.
This closing feels needlessly clever, and doesn’t quite feel true to the poet’s spirit in the rest of the collection. I don’t mean she might not feel angst or ambiguity in her relationship or view of the world, but the verses in which these are delved into never feel like the instrument obeyed her will in quite the way it does elsewhere.
Ultimately, Animal Purpose is an optimistic book, and it is at its best when this is clearest. There is a simplicity to the goodness at work in these poems that calls to mind Mary Oliver, another poet well-acquainted with the Buckeye state, and one unafraid to see beauty with open eyes.
The book often enough settles into a comfort with its better moments, Burke showing us ourselves and our natural surrounding in a way offers us that window/mirror tension. When these come unannounced, in a spark of inspiration, they are sublime, and tell us much about our place in natural world
He can learn the names of all the birds
in the valley. Not one
will be enticed to learn his.
Despite a few detours, Animal Purpose is a collection of deep optimism and subtle craft from a poet intimate with both the rural Midwest and the megalopolis of New York. She has seen, it appears, the best and worst of both these worlds, and while her intellect has chosen the latter, these poems would seem to hint her heart is still with the former. The soil of her imagination is too rich with wild things to leave them behind, and she shows us our own place among them.
Dear unobservant god,
do not snuff us out.
We are beautiful and strange.
David Nilsen is the former editor of Fourth & Sycamore. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can find more of his writing on his website at davidnilsenwriter.com and follow him on Twitter as @NilsenDavid.