UNVEILED: THE LITERARY RE-DISCOVERY OF THE CENTURY
Just this past autumn an astonishing discovery was made, consisting of work hidden away in a crammed desk belonging to the writer Otis Kidwell Burger, mother of the writer and artist Katherine Burger, a Woodstock resident, former longtime director of the Artist’s Residency Program at Byrdcliffe, and currently House Manager at the Maverick concert hall. Katherine’s mother, Otis, is a lifelong writer and artist, as her daughter is. Otis’ longtime home on Manhattan’s Bethune Street was once a writers’ gathering place, frequented by such luminaries as Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut, who set part of a novel there, in Otis’ house. The recent discovery is of the sole surviving copy of some of Otis’ work, poetry lost for 60 years: entitled Love is a Season, it’s a sonnet cycle, 47 poems long. Otis, now 94 years old, wrote them in 1957 and, unable to rouse any interest in them at the time, put them away in a drawer.
This re-discovery would have compelling charm, in and of itself. What makes it so much more is that Love is a Season provides us with some of the most moving and surprising love sonnets written since Shakespeare. Those who have known Otis Kidwell Burger’s poetry and other writing, composed during a long life never very far from the typewriter, and published in The New Yorker and elsewhere, will not be surprised that the poetry is excellent. What has taken aback every reader, and the audience at formal and informal readings from the sonnet cycle, is the bold originality of the collection, which recruits the natural world to validate the poet’s feelings. Heaven itself, she confesses, might condemn her. Neither the poet nor her beloved are free of other entanglements. Love obeys no rules; very well, but where then, does the lover find his or her patent, Love’s writ? In the landscape and its creatures, Otis’ poems tell us, invoking light and landscape, field and forest, and deploying compulsive attention to beasts, birds and insects. This is her cast; these are her judges, and her exemplars. The entire drama, presented with masterly formal control, gives us the birth of passion, and its waning with the winter light: the sequence spans a year.
Otis’ daughter is quick to confess the surprise of this brimming surrender to erotic obsession. It’s as if I’m meeting a whole new side of my mother, Katherine admits.
I hear you like the blood in my own body,
or like the wind that winds about the house;
Invisible, you spin a thread nobody
But I can follow; secret as a mouse
Beneath its pathways in the meadow grass
The 47 sonnets are Shakespearean in form. There are two, composed during the dismemberment of the passionate ‘season’ charted by the poet, that are loose – as if distraught — in construction. The rest are as faithfully in thrall to metre and rhyme as if they too are the blood in the poet’s own body. And the subject matter, not only love but love’s court of endorsement – a kind of trial of her love — leaps out at the reader in poem after poem, insisting on the interpenetration of human passion and its animal origins. The poet has, she says,
…taken counsel with the breathless fish,
With bird who drink and swim in the air of sky,
And footed beasts between…
Creatures confirm, as nothing else in the world around her can, the overwhelmingly natural ferocity of her feelings.
I am both ass and owl, both snake and dove;
The fearful Name by which men summon love.
From all created forms, unreason springs
Cross all the careful roads of history,
All fierce as claws, as scales, as airy wings,
As lung to air, as gill to darkling sea…
These know my reasons, and my reckless love
Will find its pardon there, if not above.
She is a driven soul at the mercy of elves’ gold:
As if the tree of night had showered down
A host of jewels from its shaken leaves,
Opals and rubles from its towering crown,
So is my room ablaze with golden greaves
Of flashing beetle, and pallid moths which fold
As slim as silken pencils; lace-winged flies;
Gay striped bugs with knobby horns, and bold
Big moths, beneath whose dull grey lies.
A tiger-lily underwing; and red
As blood spots, tiny moths; and here and there
Black velvet moths, jet-furred about the head.
And fluttering scalloped browns that beat the air
Like driven souls. A fortune, in light’s thrall.
But, like elves’ gold, with daylight, vanished all.
Finding Otis’ poems has been a little like finding a hidden, undiscovered Elizabethan play — the work carries the same stunning surprise conveyed by something that should have belonged to all of us, should have been part of our national treasury and the mental lexicon of all poetry-lovers. Soon they will form part of our heritage, as they always should have done – just as countless other jewels have been lost forever; but not this one.
Her book belongs to the New York countryside in which it was written; to the species it invokes; to love itself and to its permanence in the very language that announces love’s impermanence. And at the last it is the landscape – the wide impossibility of skies – that she thanks.
Lord Lord, preserve for me this end of dream;
This lucid respite from the personal
When love’s no longer flesh, but hill and stream
And summer light, and every interval
In human plans and passions; let me see
Back-lit with love’s uncanny brightness, all
Mankind and earth as part of time and me
And I of them; enchanted, in the thrall
Or forces far too large to put aside,
Which joined us two by two, that we might bear
Earth, life, Love, flesh, and all the wide
Impossibilities of skies. Oh, wear
Me lightly, time; who once have known
Your puzzle and your promise in my bone.
Love is a Season, by Otis Kidwell Burger, with artwork by Katherine Burger, will be published on March 31st by Dr. Cicero Books, and available shortly thereafter on Amazon.com
Carey Harrison recently completed The Heart Beneath, a quartet of novels he began 49 years ago and which he regards as his life’s chief endeavor. (A separate series of novels, the Justice quintet, was fitted in, over the years, as were three more unconnected novels.) The Heart Beneath was published by Dr. Cicero Books in a revised edition in September 2016. That month, Harrison began a year as a Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study in Berlin, who awarded him the Fellowship in honor of his lifetime’s output of fiction. He continues to write and teach at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.