The Way Down

The Way Down

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by John Burt

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"For the sake of contraption (like Frost) and of character (like Robinson), John Burt will do a great deal, and his scope and scansion require a great deal, for his theme is nothing less than the reinvention of heroism (King Mark, Mary of Nazareth, St. Francis, Paolo and Francesca, Ariadne) and the invention of a new heroics (Woodrow Wilson, Willard Gibbs). As…  See more details below


"For the sake of contraption (like Frost) and of character (like Robinson), John Burt will do a great deal, and his scope and scansion require a great deal, for his theme is nothing less than the reinvention of heroism (King Mark, Mary of Nazareth, St. Francis, Paolo and Francesca, Ariadne) and the invention of a new heroics (Woodrow Wilson, Willard Gibbs). As attentive to ekphrasis as to the sonnet's narrow room, Burt feels what he knows, and he knows that we can learn from the past only by repeating it. A grand achievement!" --Richard HowardAlmost all these poems are narrative, telling stories that turn on some small but crucial shift of sensibility. One hears in them a speaking rather than a singing voice, a voice which, for all its formality and gravity, remains oral and sociable, a voice which tells things rather than spins charms. Their predominant mood is lucid asperity, sometimes breaking out into the angry Calvinism they always barely keep down, sometimes striving to achieve a humane skepticism that always just eludes them.The book consists of two sections, one concerned with the cruxes and contradictions of private feeling, the other with the unraveling of the public world. Each section centers on a long narrative poem that culminates the building tensions of the poems that precede it and makes possible the resolutions that follow them.Sonnet I from "St. Francis and the Wolf" Saved at last, not at the last of me, I knelt two-legged, made of guttural air A little yelp to sound like human prayer. The saints were cautious, understandably.I took the cup, and managed not to drool, But dreamed the wine was blood, as I'd been taught, And vainly curbed the vain bent of my thought. I knew myself an angel, felt a fool.Could God have erred in making teeth and maw? Then for his glory I will bite the lamb Whose terror he transmogrifies to awe That I may do his service as I am,Till as I am I leap the mortal gulf To rage in heaven, a perfected wolf.

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Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Princeton Legacy Library Series
Product dimensions:
5.88(w) x 8.81(h) x 0.46(d)

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The Way Down

By John Burt


Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06727-8



The Funeral Day

(Suffield, Connecticut, 1952)

    Later, we folded our hands in his tidy room.
    Patience taught us nothing: we sat for hours
    While the brass clock mumbled to itself like a nun.
    The shadows in the eaves began
    To knot up all the air. And then outside
    This bird just sang and sang and sang.
    What was it to him? Where did he get the right?
    I got up to close the window

    And there I saw the tobacco-fields
    Moving their shrouds in the dusk.
    The wind came thoughtlessly over the wide cloth
    And lifted the white undersides of leaves.
    I didn't close the window. When I sat back down,
    I didn't say what I had seen.

Three Songs from Paintings

by J. E. Millais


    The thrush was quiet, and the buzz of insects
    Ceased to stumble in my ear. I said:
    Sister, it is about to rain.
    But she tugged my hand
    And led me through the cool of day.
    In the rattle of the leaves, the distant thunder
    Hid its breath. Is there a tree,
    I said, to shelter us awhile?
    She pulled me on and did not say a word.

    But you will be afraid, I thought,
    When the storm comes striding on the plain;
    And we will cower by the highway's side,
    And you will cling to me, amid the shattered air
    As if I were your dream.
    I will hear the storm departing
    Long before it ends for you,
    And my heart will leap to meet the rainbow
    You will only see.


    As you look at nothing, turning a ring in your hand,
    Your lips part.
    What reflection surfaces behind your eyes?
    For half an hour you are silent
    In the eddies of your hair.

    If the perfume, and the smell of oranges
    Were to unfold, if the sullen moon
    Were to crease the coverts, as once it did
    When wind went heaving through the dark—

    You start. The candle on the table sways.
    Somewhere a diver claws the soundless water
    And then is still.
    Quietly inhaling, you touch the flowers at your breast
    And rise as slowly from the mirror as a star.


    Long shadows glide to the ground.
    Among plane trees, the wind moves
    Like the memory of wind.
    Yellow leaves, shifting on the windowsill,
    Fall like light.
    The poison flower painted on the glass
    Is a bending angel, an angel in disgrace.
    In the recesses of the room,
    Among September's purple disarray,
    An unseen candle burns.

    But it is no vision that moves among the leaves
    Scattered on the floor, no dream that slants
    Across the casement like the shadow of a man.

    By the windowsill, where the sun of afternoon
    Condensed upon the air, she had been weaving,
    Singing to herself a song ten summers old.
    But when the words ran out
    And the dust bloomed in the light, she stood
    And stretched amid the quiet of the room
    Her eyes as empty as the wind.

Songs of Innocence

(Newport, 1886)

    It is not narcissism, nor vanity,
    But the blithe and gaudy irony of play
    That paints the mouth a burning bud, arches
    Tense the bow on brow, and sets the hectic
    Spot on laughing cheek. Look mommy!
    She cries, until she does.

      Drawing breath,
    She smiles hastily, discovering there
    Not herself undone in wicked blazon,
    Not the portent of hunger, sign of sorrow
    Declared but not imagined, inevitable
    But not realized. It is young bravery
    Repeating the brave things she only later
    Learns to mean, sure to stray, but sure
    In straying, bound for shade, yet stopping here
    To play with shades she later will assume.

Ballet Academy

    It suits him fine to loiter in the late
    Slant of winter light: the blind buildings
    Keep their distance, and the air's austerity
    Pleases him, and teaches him not to want.
    It is not the weather that betrays.

    Lesson's over: the girls' voices wake him,
    And the glass door opens noiselessly. The room
    Is warm, too warm, he tells himself, looking
    At his feet. The linoleum is pink.
    And so also the walls: pink cinder-block.
    Their voices flutter in their inner room
    Where they have been reaching, turning, bending,
    In fierce red light streaming from high slats
    Through dense shadows, tropical. "And you are?"
    Startled, he tells her. She stands there smiling.
    "A darling girl," she says, "She'll be right out."
    She looks at him, smiling a bit too long,
    Setting an old ache loose. But the girl comes,
    Taking his hand, clearing the air with talk,
    And leads him back into the cold, at last.


    The water burns on the sand. Here
    Is an arch. There a pillar.
    Everywhere the sun.

    In my father's house there are so many rooms
    That I have lost myself for hours at a time.
    Unspeaking slaves with jars of oil
    Drown my footsteps in their own.
    From every light well the same
    Uncomprehending blue eye looks down. So
    I have come to the edge of the sea.

    Black sail, black keel, black wave,
    What man is brother to me? Will he
    Become a thing of corridors?
    Will he become as shameful in his sight
    As I am in my own?

    Let this be a city which never knew a king,
    A city without statues,
    Built by no hand.
    If a name is on the wall,
    A guilty child scratched it there.
    And let those who cross the ocean
    Find among its avenues
    No casks of wine, Phoenician gold,
    Or shadows to be buried in.
    The ocean's blue is the blue of the sky.
    The sound of waves collapsing on the harbor bar
    Cannot be parted from the wind.

    The marble arches wither in the sun.

Paolo and Francesca

    It only seemed a tempest. On the warm
    Whirling of the wind we slid, and gave
    Ourselves into its fullness. Sweet and grave,
    The sorrow of her face composed the storm
    Till we forgot our fear, and beating higher,
    Our hearts grew keen and awful as the sun.
    Dreams wound us in, and we became as one
    Who looks into the mirror of desire.

    Her mouth was clay, and on my lips the chill
    Stole inward with a less than mortal sting
    Whose promise and enthrallment were the same.
    O you, who make a kingdom of the will,
    In angel hunger for a human thing,
    Your recompense is having what you claim.

Waiting for Birds

    It wasn't half so strange to wake alone
    As she had feared, she told herself, awake,
    Waiting for birds, when night had cleared for her.
    How proud of her he'd be, to see her now,
    Who learned her bravery by heart from him.
    The air was still as sorrow, and as cool.
    If death were like this hour, yes, if death
    Were breathing in the purple dark and calm,
    Why then, it must be lucky and delicious,
    And easy, easy and rich to let it take.
    Is this the way? She lay so still, so ready,
    She felt the little plates in every vein
    Turn into gems. The nerves, unknotted, rayed
    Their silver wire. And all of her was perfect,
    All forgotten. This is how they lay
    Forever in the sure repose of loss:
    Outside, the stone sarcophagus, the charms
    Against all suffering, against all hope;
    Then ritual gold and lapis lazuli,
    The body wrought by grief beyond decay;
    Then, wrapped in linen, fragrant herbs, and balm,
    A few charred random flakes of flesh.
    But all at once an urgency of birds
    Broke in her ear, glass ground on glass
    Till up she leapt, raging and revived.
    Birds, what can she tell you but never to rest?
    Who doesn't eat his heart must let it rot.

On the Will to Believe

    Who is awake? The wind is awake.
    But will you stir? Her wakefulness is part of yours.
    Will you walk with her in the darkness?
    Here is the star she stole for you alone.
    She will show to you a tree of thorns,
    Her empty hands, that broken bridge.
    You will read in the book of faces
    But you will not find your own.

    And you will remember then to stop, to lie
    Down still, to say that if there were a mark
    It would be there, and there would demonstrate
    The love, the will, the calm necessity.
    The clouds will scud among the glaciers of the mountain.
    The idiot moon will watch in the cold.

Learning the Table

    What we cannot grasp
    We get by heart,
    Repeating our
    Misgiving's part

    Until it's ours
    If any is:
    Our hot, unmeaning

    That seem and seem
    But cannot be
    Till they rehearse
    Our liberty

    And master us
    And make us new.
    Then we desire
    What we must do

    And choose again
    Misgiving's part:
    What we cannot grasp
    We get by heart.


    I know thee not, nor ever saw
    Sight more detestable than him or thee.
      Paradise Lost

    From the Greek teras, monster:
    A heterogeneous tumor.
    Immortal and confused,
    It walks the twisted stair of self,
    An embryo god, pluripotent,
    Looking for what will last.
    Here is a shard of bone.
    Was it mine in eternity?
    It shall be mine again.

    Where there should be marrow it places hair.
    This tangled net of nerve, is it also mine?
    What I recognize I shall retain.
    Nothing will be lost to me.

    It folds a tooth in the midst of its flesh.
    I shall not die. Sinew, cartilage, and seed
    I use, but am not bound by them.
    I have descended out of order and mortality.

    Forever it will wonder at itself,
    A lonely solipsist, lost in the genes,
    Heaping shape on shape, untiring,
    Trying to remember where it first went wrong,
    Forgetting that death is not the price of sin
    But mercy's tender innovation.

The Homecoming of Bran

    So we bore the body of Bran beyond the gates
    And placed him at the table's head.
    We drank with him, and he did not decay.
    We slept in shadows, and he did not close his eyes.
    And for twenty months we heard the songs
    Which the birds of Rhiannon sing for the weary and the dead.
    And we saw no man other than ourselves.
    And we poured our laughter on the ground.
    And the sun laughed in his strength
    Until Heilyn said,
    "Where are the fields of this country?"
    And we opened the east gate
    And found nor fields nor pastures
    Nor any cultivated land.
    And Heilyn said,
    "Where are the towns of this country?"
    We opened the south gate
    And found nor house nor hut
    Nor wall of any kind.
    And Heilyn said,
    "Where are the men of this country?"
    We opened the north gate
    And saw the speechless shape
    Of a man in fur, climbing the rocks far away.
    And then we opened the west gate
    And all our lands were there, and we remembered
    Every blow we took beyond the sea,
    And remembered our wives, that wailed us as widows,
    And remembered the death of Prince Bran:
    Whose body we burnt to ashes.
    When we returned to our halls,
    Strange men sat on all our thrones.

King Mark's Dream

    It was the fumes of wine, that's all,
    And sleeping all alone in that big hot bed.

    He stood awhile at the sill: the stubble-rows
    Were muffled up in snow. An empty tree shook,
    And from the forest came the cries of distant wolves.
    It was a dream. She was not flesh and blood.
    And I am old to be so hot. I will pray
    For an easy death before I lose myself.

    But it was not death he woke to, not death
    Who sat beside him, stilled his heart,
    And loosened all the knots that held his breath,
    But the child he found weeping at his door,
    Who over again would count the names of woe,
    Whom he had christened "love" and taught to whisper "mine."

From the Diary of Willard Gibbs

(March, 1903)

    I wanted to write about "The Mind and Nature,"
    One abstraction searching out another.
    But the mind is never just itself.
    We love Theory as poets love pale women,
    For its perfection and its lack of pity.
    And our love is just as happy.
    Who can say which killed Galois:
    The dancing girl for whose sake
    He had his brains blown out in a duel;
    Or her, less sensuous but no less coy,
    His Theory, its freedom and pure promise,
    What he fought his teachers for,
    Wrote theorems out that no one read
    (Or read as his calm mistress
    Read his verses), until he lived apart
    And sought unhappy company?
    He saw too much perfection, and it unmanned him.
    His letter to Gauss, that last night, is that
    The Mind alone with Nature?
    —Tear-stained and garbled, thick with his fear,
    But willing his one clarity
    To one he scarce believed would read it through?

    Enough: I have myself preferred to compromise,
    To teach mechanics to backward children
    My treatise on gears, they said, had more geometry
    Than iron in it, and the engine-governor
    I built showed some new things about control.
    I taught my classes and was free of them.

    But in a cold house, on quiet nights
    I traced my limits clearly as I could,
    And found in them a Theory of my own.
    I learned that every order runs to rot,
    That every motion must in time be spent.
    There must be loveliness in that unlovely law.

    I gave it homage; I could not give it love.
    I have, at least, survived my theories,
    But did I master them by knowing them,
    Or have I just lived too long?

    The mind, I know. Nature casts me out.

Photograph from Luzon, 1899

    He is fifteen in the picture, fighting in the Philippines,
    Wearing a medic's uniform too large for him.
    Some naked children, forgetting their game,
    Look up at him but do not speak.
    In a second they will run away,
    And he, not seeing them, will still be standing straight,
    Hands on hips, like one disdaining trial.

    He did not have it taken for his parents—who were they?—
    Nor for the aunt who, knowing, pitying,
    Forgave him till she justified his contempt.
    He had it taken for history's sake, having none,
    His taunt to those who knew but would not tell
    The unremembered grievance he fostered like a twin.

    Those he bandaged, who cried out
    Jesus when he pulled the dressings tight,
    Saw that it was not the enemy alone he hated.
    His captain said it was the strain of war,
    Of fighting an enemy who crept
    Between the pickets in the dark
    And set the tents afire.

    Was it the not knowing, or what he did not know?
    The night before, a Filipino woman
    Had surprised him, had touched his arm
    In mute offer and entreaty. Later,
    Having beaten her till she ran, he dreamed
    Of women, pale and long-haired women
    Who took him in their arms, saying
    Sleep, sleep, it is enough,
    And woke up reaching, wondering.

    And then, lost in an unmastered past,
    He fixed time's center here, glaring
    At the glib photographer whose name he never learned,
    Saying to himself, Hold on to this,
    You who search my giddiness and pain.
    This is what I was.
    See now if you can master me.

His Kind-Hearted Woman

    When RobertJohnson sang alone in hell
    A tree sprang up, its branches phosphorescent
    In the still gloom, its gleaming bark all silver
    And all its leaves transparent, amethyst.
    He touched a limb, and leaf on leaf onsliding
    Shook out the timid sound of wakened bells.
    He found in every secrecy of leaves
    A fruit: he watched it rolling in his palm
    Then put it cautiously into his mouth,
    Its taste electric, bitter, passing quickly
    Into nothing. At last they stained his hands,
    As he was pulling from that ringing tree
    Again and again, and the glittering storm of leaves
    Shook over him their wakeful quavering.

    And men and women came to him in hell
    Awakened by the tree he'd set to cry,
    Each eye insistent, each tongue full of blame,
    Its candor loud and horrible and right,
    How they'd been wronged, how they were not the first
    To lose their way in love, how strange it was.
    But every heart a hard uncertainty
    Clutched tightly to itself as if in hope
    That they might yet be wrong, that love itself
    Were more than tangling, though it tangled them,
    That he might ravel out their love and rage.
    They heard themselves, then stood there dumb, ashamed,
    And saw they'd do again what they had done,
    Who'd never love until they gave up hope.

    She'd had a dream before she poisoned him:
    While she lay sleeping, he stood at her door
    And longing gripped her till she held her breath
    And opened to him; but he wasn't there,
    And she went walking in the night alone
    Through barren streets and barren alleyways
    All strange to her, inhuman, like no place,
    And brutal strangers laid their hands on her
    And tore her gown. She woke aghast and knew
    How knowingly he'd wink, and drink it down,
    As if it were as sweet to him as love,
    How even in convulsions, on all fours,
    Slipping in his blood, a beast enraged,
    Still he would shout: I'm not afraid. I'm not.

Leonce Pontellier


    He was so grateful they were nice to him
    He almost put from sight the irony
    They didn't know they felt, much less betrayed.
    He didn't know what to allow himself.
    That he had failed her he was well aware
    Although he knew she'd never noticed it
    Not having given him the chance to fail.
    The words he might have used for what she'd done
    "Deceit," "betrayal," "infidelity,"
    Seemed grandiose and false. If that were grief
    It ought to be a purer thing than what
    He had these days been stalking in his mind,
    Half doubting it was there, afraid at once
    It might, or else might not, be stalking him.
    He was her husband. He had a right to guilt,
    To angry incredulity, to grief.
    But what he felt was blank and at a loss.
    He'd have to get his bearings from his friends,
    Whose very kindness stopped him in his tracks.

    He didn't doubt that they meant well by him,
    For if he did, where would he find himself?
    Not hell, for sure, he was already there,
    Nor limbo, where he saw he'd been before.
    Then paradise, for doubting them he'd hate,
    And hating, burn to purity again.

    He'd known, almost at once, how it would be:
    They wouldn't fear to see themselves in him
    (As he, God knows, would not have seen himself
    Had it all happened to somebody else)
    Because they thought him far too dull to blame.
    They'd swaddle him in kindness like a child
    Who mustn't learn what he can't bear to learn
    And so learns nothing, except to crave and fear
    That worst surmise he makes despite it all:
    He'd never wronged her, for he'd never mattered.

    But even Doctor Mandelet, who took
    His elbow as he wobbled off the train
    Into a crowd whose tongue had slipped his mind,
    Parting the wave (How people put their hands
    All over you in a crowd—are you unreal
    To them?—as if that hidden little push
    From nobody, that hot breath in the ear,
    Were not more intimate than you can be
    With anyone you love!), who had the only
    Fully-formed intention in that stifling
    Sweetness and love-languor of the air,
    Was not so wise as to conceal his tact.


Excerpted from The Way Down by John Burt. Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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The Way Down 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
mbryantMB More than 1 year ago
John Burt's "The Way Down" is an amazing book full of poems that will interest any reader. I really love to read poetry books and was a little hesitant to read John Burt's poems, but his poems are awesome and amazing, and were very enjoyable to read. The first section is composed of poems about love that readers of all ages will be able to relate to. The last half of the book is titled " Pueblo Fairgrounds" with a variety of poems for readers of all kinds. This was an excellent book full different uniquely written poems, that different people of all ages and interest will be able to appreciate. As I read through the book, I like how John Burt would be able to take a simple idea, use that idea to write a poem, and through that poem express deeper meanings. While reading John Burt's book "The way Down" he also incorporated into his poems famous people. By doing this a reader will always be able to find some of the poems interesting to them, for example there is a poem about Andrew Ramsay who is a famous geologist, or there is one about Mary of Nazareth, and there is even one about Woodrow Wilson, who was the twenty eight president of the United States. Reading " The was Down" was a very enjoyable experience, people of all ages will be able to connect and enjoy the poems that John Burt has written.