Rattle & Numb: Selected and New Poems, 1992-2019 by John Burroughs
Venetian Spider Press, 2019
167 pages, $27.85
Review by: Pamela R. Anderson-Bartholet
Beat Poet John Burroughs’ most recent collection, Rattle & Numb: Selected and New Poems, 1992-2019, is raw, beautiful, and often painfully revealing. Many of the poems are anchored in Northeast Ohio, where he makes his home, yet they also pulse with creative and worldly concerns. I am particularly captivated by Burroughs’ generous inclusion of musicians in his work. But he doesn’t stop with music. Poets, writers, artists are invigorated by Burroughs’ extraordinary energy and penetrating observations. This is a poet who consumes his world with a ravenous appetite, tasting the bitter and the sweet and then returning for more. It is a wild, satisfying ride.
From the first poem “After Kao Ch’an,” which reads “this fish aims upward / rises from cooling water / like a fall lotus,” I expect that I will experience this poet’s triumphs as well as his challenges. He has places to go—places he wants to be—but his journey will not be without struggle. Yet the journey will, perhaps, satisfy his yearning to gain understanding and a sense of peace, as with “Identity Crisis”:
I don’t want to be anyone but me
I just want to be all I can be
Until I can’t be,
but with Burroughs there is no guarantee of a soft landing at the end of it all.
Again and again he reflects on the past while standing in the present and looking toward the future. In “Bloodshot,” his “cynical Seneca ancestors” knew the score. They faced “an endless queue of unrelenting conquistadors, / lusting for booty,” and “defiling our trust” in the same fate that befell the:
children of Hiroshima, Hanoi
Belfast, Belgrade, Baghdad, Bethlehem
and coming soon to a theatre
of war near you.
These kinds of tragedies certainly command his attention. Be aware, he is cautioning, they may soon land on your doorstep. In “Being the Change Is Not Enough,” he challenges the reader to think more deeply about easy aphorisms:
Telling a hungry mother to be
the change she wishes to see
is like telling her to be the meal
she wants to eat.
In “Unfounded,” he grapples with the bookends of life and death and everything that comes in between:
In this city of lost places
my fifteen-year-old granddaughter
is no longer hiding
all the places she cuts
herself to hide
all the places
I read “Unfounded” many times, focusing on details that are contained in this “city of lost places.” There are six urns with ashes of people—and pets—he loved. There are people who are “hurting and healing.” There are the physical fragments of his deceased wife’s life—her clothing, a family photo collage, and makeup “still / in my bathroom with her tweezers / and scissors and razor.” “Unfounded” is deeply connected to “Suite Melissa” with their twin cities of “lost places.” He is in two places of grief and loss. In this poem, which contemplates many deaths, Burroughs again has his eyes on the past but from a place firmly rooted in the present:
I play my favorite
Allman Brothers song on repeat
remember the advent of my poetry
and mourn the imminent over
As in the title of his book, Burroughs’ has been rattled, but he is not numb. He seems to be expressing his NOT numbness, being rattled into sensation. He is never numb to what happened in the past, what is happening today, and what waits on the horizon.
Although this book addresses urgent, timely issues, it is not without raucous, rollicking, irreverent joy. Many of his most exuberant poems are found in the musical dreamscape that Burroughs creates with references of Prince, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, The Dave Matthews Band, Judas Priest, Billie Holiday, and James Brown:
this whole dream
has to be real because
it smells funkier
than red white and blue
shorts on James Brown
in a cold sweat
in a rocky screenplay
set to feature Sylvester Stone
singing Family Affair.
Music inspires John Burroughs, and as reflected in “Pullet,” he also gains inspiration from physical objects like artist/musician Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies—a deck of cards that offers possible solutions to blocked creativity. He writes:
You pull one at random
when you want to be unstuck.
The one I pulled tonight
says “Use Filters.”
So I took another taste
of my martini.
While reading Rattle & Numb, I frequently accessed Spotify and YouTube to listen to the songs referenced throughout. By doing so, I found myself sinking even more deeply into the rhythmic collisions of words and improvisations that buoy Burroughs’ brooding, darker sides.
Perfectly capturing the essence of these poems is the book’s cover art: Nighttime Dreams & Midnight Screams by Cleveland artist Emma Anderson. Anderson describes this painting as the stuff of nightmares, with each figure representing her own emotions, anxieties, and worries. She says it is an expression of her truest self as well as the challenges with which she was grappling at the time she created it.
I respect and honor Anderson’s creative impulse; however, I see creatures that could also represent Burroughs himself. With over-emphasized eyes and mouths stretched wide open, they observe and seem to speak truths while backlit in darkness that is slightly alleviated by flashes of light. In my mind, the creatures’ vivid colors accentuate the ways in which Burroughs lives his life: fully present, hard-hitting, and filled with passion. This magnificent poetry collection, Rattle & Numb, represents some of his best writing. Beat poet John B. Burroughs is the author of more than a dozen books, founding editor of Crisis Chronicles Press, a nationally touring poet and performer, Ohio’s Beat Poet Laureate (2019-2021), and the U.S. National Beat Poet Laureate (named in September 2022 by the National Beat Poetry Foundation, Inc.). His commanding voice simply must continue to rise and ring out.
Cover art by Cleveland artist Emma Anderson
Pamela R. Anderson-Bartholet is the author of three poetry chapbooks, including Widow Maker (Finishing Line Press), a chronicle of her husband’s cardiac arrests/recovery. Formerly a public radio fundraiser, Anderson-Bartholet hit the jackpot when she retired and finally was able to channel her energies into hiking with her husband, practicing yoga, writing, and reading. Website: www.pamelaranderson.org Instagram: @prandersonpoet