The Plague Doctor

by Garrett Burrell
Achiote Press 2008
Reviewed by Brooklyn Copeland

7.5

“We didn’t know the names for the insects that started blowing in.”

burrell coverI should start by saying that I jumped at the chance to review Garrett Burrell’s first chapbook. The cover art, by Elisa Carozza-Kuhl, is stunning even on-screen, and, while I’ve enjoyed the fruits of Burrell’s tenure as poetry editor for At-Large Magazine, I hadn’t read any of his work until I found the Achiote Press website. The Plague Doctor is represented there by two very beautiful, smart sample poems, both of which only hint at the collection’s greatest strengths.

The first poem presents itself as a list of 25 “inosculations.” Readers who skim past this key word without bothering to double-check its definition in this context do themselves a disservice. From Wikipedia: “Inosculation is a natural phenomenon in which two trees, or more commonly the branches thereof, grow together.” The theme of two branches, or two eras in the history of science, growing together, carries The Plague Doctor from start to finish. The list is a rapid, atmospheric exchange that sweeps the reader into a bustling world of passenger trains, mines, scaffolding, salvation, watchmen and ever-present Nature. Right away, I got a sense of Burrell’s careful handling of the sound and shape of a poem, as well as his ambitious and infectious energy:

9. (The stalks switching hard on the stripped chest, scored with private
          hieroglyphs)
10. Draws back, culls out, fluttering; floored by that gravity, plumbed
          and sighing
11. Condos and the old adobe abodes, sumped together in the soft 
          window embrasure yellows
12. From a coastal nave, on the recurrently smoothed ocean

Burrell develops the inosculation by introducing a cast of characters that includes Rimbaud, Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Within two or three poems, themes of inquiry and exploration have fully emerged, with words like “longitudes,” “species” and “survival” grounding the reader in 19th Century science. The men who play here are classically imperial, tackling nature with crude technology, cataloging native flora and fauna, seemingly from a God-given place of Anglo-Saxon authority. Burrell, through his expertly-paced, empathetic language, focuses on what these men saw, the conditions in which they saw it, and how it bewildered and challenged them. In “View From the Adventure” we see Darwin as a young naturalist onboard the HMS Beagle:

his long hours watching anthills, the baffling recurrent ulcers. Still later
           awed.
But for now, yawing from his father’s influence, he listened

to Spanish sailors, wandered into island interiors,
dreaming another place than these Encantadas—

where the mappedbacked tortoises, hinting of the mystery
of isolation, became a language of founding beaches—

 

Similarly, Alfred Russel Wallace travels to Sarawak, which is being governed by a white Englishman, and immerses himself in its collection of native insects. Burrell’s three-part poem, “Ternate Letter,” is one of the most effecting in the whole chapbook. He sets an intense, feverish scene, from

 Sweating, skin glazed-

 over with beads, he rolls
 in bed, thinks perhaps

 of a dead brother, a new flower,

 a secret pond, eggs
 rafted together, afloat.

to

 …Apogee of travel, day

 his view rhymes most with

 a withdrawing world, fits
 within its changing seams. Here is certain

 (the date, exactly, unrecalled) but—

 sometime after his arrival, before
 a short sail to Borneo, the ghostly factor

 resolves itself to him.

Burrell is as steady-handed and precise as a scientist. Progressing from the spirit of exploration and the discovery of new lands, we read in poems like “Greenland” what happens once “we” begin to inhabit them, bringing our Old World habits and politics with us:

Everyday more people inhabited the old buildings—
every night we went out wearing less— the breeze reminding us of 
           island.
We didn’t know the names for the insects that started blowing in.

Soon, the natural world is photographed and imported into cities, where it lives behind glass in museums for new generations who might not recognize it, otherwise. Clouds like those in “Untitled,”  which have drifted in and out of the poems from the very beginning, help mark the passage of time until we reach present-day:

 …As if alive
 the midnight clouds passed over,

 moving to a different time. Even then we felt
 there was an avenue we’d never visited, still an unseen lot

 would put its finger on the thing in us
 that waiting.

The “unseen lot” may reference “the final frontier,” or, outer-space. Accordingly, Burrell ends the collection with a series of poems named for stars. He reveals himself as a naturalist in his own right, as inspired by the unknown as Darwin or Wallace, but instilled with modern-day concerns about our approach to and our impact on the world around us as we begin to explore beyond the earth’s surface:

 My heart stamps itself
 through my shoeprint— still it was possible

 to lie about whose tracks they were— impossible to replace

 the snow,
 flake for flake, the way it came

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