Stephen is sometimes Stephanie and sometimes wonders how his past and her past are their own collective memory
Advice from the Lights is a brilliant and candid exploration of gender and identity and a series of looks at a formative past. It’s part nostalgia, part confusion, and part an ongoing wondering: How do any of us achieve adulthood? And why would we want to, if we had the choice? This collection is woven from and interrupted by extraordinary sequences, including Stephanie poems about Stephen’s female self; poems on particular years of the poet’s early life, each with its own memories, desires, insecurities, and pop songs; and versions of poems by the Greek poet Callimachus, whose present-day incarnation worries (who doesn’t?) about mortality, the favor of the gods, and the career of Taylor Swift. The collection also includes poems on politics, location, and parenthood. Taken all together, this is Stephen Burt’s most personal and most accomplished collection, an essential work that asks who we are, how we become ourselves, and why we make art.
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I was Mr. Spock being raised by Dr. Spock.
I would have trusted my instincts if I had any,
By wearing them over and over without socks I let my one pair of gold tennis shoes fall apart.
I had become convinced that character was fate.
That shell is pretty, but that shell is too small for me.
Each home is a hideout; each home is a secret; each home is a getaway under the same hot lamp, a means to a lateral move at low velocity.
I live in a room in the room of a boy I barely see.
Sometimes the boy and his talkative friends raise too-warm hands and try to set me free
and I retreat into myself, hoping they place me back in my terrarium, and they do, with disappointed alacrity.
Scatter patterns in sand, adnates, cancellates, gaping whelk husks, a toy tractor-trailer, cracked and dinged, beside the spine of a plastic tree,
the helmet-shaped shelter of a shadow cast by a not-quite-buried wedge of pottery ...
if I have a body that's wholly my own then it isn't mine. For a while I was protected by what I pretended to be.
To be delicate, to be too big for the helpless, too little and too important
To have to say: help me out of this tulle dress
I know how to kiss but not how to do this slow dance
What use is the adult world? It doesn't have unicorns
Why can't I wear two different colored shoes?
A Covered Bridge in Littleton, New Hampshire
I can remember when I wanted X more than anything ever-for X fill in from your own childhood
[balloon, pencil lead, trading card, shoelaces, a bow or not to have to wear a bow]
and now I am moved to action, when I am moved,
The point is to be, in your own eyes, what you are,
or to keep your own tools, so that you can pretend.
And so it was no surprise,
That morning, needing a nap,
It was now my younger brothers who had philosophical objections to taking a bath.
After I came back from the optician,
erasers' edges, girls' clean fingernails,
but evident in separate outlines, sad as Atari pixels with their 8-bit math.
I had not the means but the active imagination-
into the Earth's hot mantle in a box-elder-bug-shaped burrowing ironclad.
I was the stowaway on an Edwardian liner who knew what the locket's ancient pictographs meant,
thanks to my prior study of Egyptology,
I was also the unaccompanied minor afraid to look down, or out at the Atlantic,
as we began our rickety descent toward Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
I thought of myself as omniscient, as ichthyomantic.
in sea-floor adventures, a Nebula-winning tetralogy,
The sky is platinum blonde,
One part of bad news,
one line of will and must, of take what you get,
Please, everybody alive,
brought down to this Earth by Scott Miller of Sacramento and Davis, CA: the author, while there,
of "I've Tried Subtlety," the least subtle among his disgruntled effects, and of "Aerodeliria,"
intuitive puns or unfolded misconceptions,
as of today
Complete in ourselves,
our mothers and one another our owners'
until we became intertwined, which is why you try
One of us is a gossamer pirate ship,
sunset highlights, sail by oblong sail.
a ligature, a propeller, a fat lip.
whose modes of coagulation and cohabitation none of the human pedestrians understand,
we take off on our almost arbitrarily
toward the unattainable, scarily lofty realm of hawk and albatross
It seems to be up to you to keep us
Swans at a Pond by JFK Airport
a nest as big as a sleeping adult human being. No rest
accrues to the weary, if the weary are or expect to be parents; but no blues,
no keening, no jeremiads are in order, just advice they won't hear: take it slow;
try, at least, to make plans you won't have to keep: you, too, will cry.
Futurity appears here as several bits of mess: split sticks, dull loot
our trenches leave,
source that some of us find in recycling, as if we could rescue a watershed by collating apple cores,
as if goodness were easy to recognize, and the way to tell eros from caritas
whose work confines itself to the under-studied and overlooked, further reports would only confuse
us who travel in such exhausting, overbearing vehicles, and make ourselves ridiculous
thereby. It is not we who own the air.
To the Naked Mole Rats at the National Zoo
Bucktoothed and semitransparent, pretty to no one,
Everyone's younger sibling was still in a stroller,
to our beige, orange, and air-conditioned kitchens,
Everyone's dad was a lawyer, or else in government service.
I had one friend who was actually my friend:
He knew about BMXes, and how to surf,
of the bold, law-abiding, wisecracking police.
After his friends' older friends TP'd the split-level houses beside our own, rain turned their thinning banners the color of sunburnt, crumpled American cash.
Inside Outside Stephanie
I made myself. Mommy and Daddy were proud, in that order.
There was a snowstorm that lasted three days and a cavern of monochrome memory. There were board games, and a
O grapefruit (as color and flavor). O never quite rightly tied laces. O look,
the shadow of a tarp, like a sail between sailors and thin swings that make no decision, like weather vanes.
O think of the lost Chuck Taylors. The lost Mary Janes.
Scarlet, a Betta
for Amanda Schaffer
I'm really bright blue. I keep going back and forth between trying to live up to my name and following my reflection, or my nature.
I know no east, no north,
I reserve my love for holy Ariel,
All the colors I recognize are alive in the pebbles at the bottom of my tank.
Because I can't ever appear as I would like to appear,
I named myself after a pill but it didn't help. I liked the feeling of feeling small,
as long as it let me feel mobile; I wanted to roll up and down and around the tiny hall
of a groove in discarded cardboard. I used to appall my peers with risky behavior. I might fall
to my death in a half-inch ditch full of oil or lawnmower grease. I stall
at the brush of a fingertip. I'm so afraid of a grand faux pas that I answer the most banal
questions by quoting the questioner, so as to let his words shield mine. I cover my anger imperfectly, so I can breathe
with my head between my ten legs; I am my own backyard slat fence, my own slate garden wall.
I am chitin and ichor inside, but I'll never let on how I look underneath. I could always make something else of myself. I could be having a ball.
So reactionaries and radicals complain
Palinode with Playmobil Figurines
They do not move. They cannot bend their knees.
Their niece, with her persimmon bowl cut, never flees her own maple-strewn backyard; she will never steal the breeches from a stranger's line, nor find camaraderie and peril upon the high seas.
None of them know how low the imagination recedes,
I had a future in the dark.
I had to stop to pee, pull up my pants,
At home, I kept trying and failing to play piano parts for "Roundabout" and "Long Distance Runaround,"
I wanted to sing about c, about optimization,
Fifth Grade Time Capsule
Having given the sun and school
By that point everything I have kept between my boards, in my polyurethane seal,
as evidence from another age:
a jadeite earring, the Boston Globe, and a scallop-
I know I am too young to date.
or even a buried life, I dream of the day when I am decoded and vaunted, of a floral float in a parade
The people who pick me up can never be
Excerpted from "Advice from the Lights"
Copyright © 2017 Stephen Burt.
Excerpted by permission of Graywolf 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.
Table of Contents
Ice for the Ice Trade,
A Covered Bridge in Littleton, New Hampshire,
Swans at a Pond by JFK Airport,
To the Naked Mole Rats at the National Zoo,
Inside Outside Stephanie,
Scarlet, a Betta,
After Callimachus (So reactionaries ...),
Palinode with Playmobil Figurines,
Fifth Grade Time Capsule,
Black Raspberry Canes,
First Kiss Stephanie,
Taboos at Twelve,
After Callimachus (Half of me ...),
The Cars' Greatest Hits,
Fairy Story Stephanie,
School Smoking Lounge Stephanie,
Palinode with Study Guide, Spackling Knife, and Sewing Kit,
After Callimachus (Why do I write?),
A Nickel on Top of a Penny,
Advice from the Lights,
A Crime at Pattaya,
The Sun Rising,
Advice or Prayer for Airports,
Indian Stream Republic,
Spoken for a Pair of Ferrets,
After Callimachus (It's hard work ...),
Final Exam Stephanie,
Advice for Holding Together,
Advice from Rock Creek Park,
Fuzzy Golem Doll with 6" Keychain,