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Matthew Burgess

Matthew Burgess teaches creative writing and composition at Brooklyn College. He has been a poet-in-residence in New York City elementary schools through Teachers & Writers Collaborative since 2001, and currently he is completing his PhD at the CUNY Graduate Center. His work has appeared in various magazines and journals, and he recently received an award from the Fund for Poetry.

Blurbs

"Matthew Burgess has a sharp ear, a tender eye, no sympathy for humorlessness, and a swift hand with enjambment. He knows how to end a line--with a bang, or a tease, or a curve. Amid these swerves, an air of insouciant recklessness mingles with a wistful fondness for misfits, for errant paths, for the eroticism of everything that's lost, faded, remote, and wrecked. Burgess holds his beguiling "I" in check by wit, dazzling splices, and flirtatious evasiveness. A phrase like 'a collage of phalluses / to squeegee before father returns' sets my internal thermostat to a temperature resembling joy."

– Wayne Koestenbaum

"And I, you. And your little dog, too. Hello he. Dude. You know who. The music of direct interpellation, the shorthand speech that binds us--dares, avowals, threats, salutes, express permissions--is frequently the music of Matthew Burgess's Slippers for Elsewhere, a book that promises from adulthood it gets better, kid. This is a Manhattan Bound Q Train. That fast and fleet, that communal, that public, with transfers often to the local. The city, and so the broader world, awakens, phototropic, in this poet's running regard for it, bright, benedictory, dear, and keen."

– Brian Blanchfield

"These poems are possessed of a perfect heart, their measure always gushing forth to float the next incredible image, 'before you make up your mind it drifts off to ascend the Alhambra's turrets and finger pink Moorish reliefs.' The colors rise to the utmost surface of the language. They sometimes harden to form a designer diorama or time machine. The poet and reader become trembling silhouettes let loose (in cahoots) darting out from under their respective stage lights. All of this action is tailored to a very lived in (to die for) tone of voice. The winds are lifted and love is a shelter."

– Cedar Sigo

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Slippers for Elsewhere

I suggest Slippers for Elsewhere be read as a manifesto for queer optimism.

11/04/14

Matthew Burgess’s Slippers for Elsewhere is a buoyant and colorful debut. Much like the rainbow beach balls bouncing off of the book’s front cover (courtesy of an untitled Joe Brainard collage) Burgess’s poems cheerfully recall the unrepeatable summers of suburban childhood and Joan Collins crushes amidst “the shirtless huddle / of sexy extras.” Sustained by a boyish curiosity for American pop culture, and the ever-perplexing heteronormativities that frame the queer child’s experience of everyday life, Slippers for Elsewhere is a festive Technicolor romp punctuated with fisticuffs and red polka dots.

The imagery of the book’s first section, “Lift Off,” evokes the bizarre and deliriously exciting sense-making process characteristic of childhood. In the poem “Theme for a Pulse,” the speaker, as in so many of Burgess’s poems, is a precocious young boy; he writes:

when the red x in EXIT splits
and becomes Walt Whitman’s chopsticks,
I unfold the napkin and crease it
into a scorpion

which stings my ankle
then vanishes behind a golden
podium: Ladies and Gentlemen . . .

At what moment during the family outing does the poet-child “tune-out,” as it were, or begin to imagine the lively elsewhere beyond the dull, starched restaurant napkin? For the child, boredom may prompt bemusement, but for the poet, it is the familiar and its uncanny ties to the familial which cues the poet to begin making.

Stanza by stanza, in his short poems Burgess displays a keen sensitivity for the peculiar ways in which reading and recognition become inevitably intertwined with the queer world of touching feeling and writing being. In this way, Slippers for Elsewhere breezily treads across the lyric space foregrounded by Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick’s essay, “A Poem is Being Written” (which in turn looks back at Freud’s “A Child is Being Beaten”).

Recalling Sedgewick’s legendary and erudite treatise on spanking and poetry, Burgess’s “Theme for a Pulse,” explores the disciplinary impulse that shapes so much articulation. Subtle (queer) refusals, often recognized as evidence of a stubborn child-like resistance, therefore, stand out. “Yellow There,” a meditation on the various shades of American summer yellows, transports readers “to the place where / the pencil reigns—” in the decisive private mind of the child. There, “a million crayoned suns and mustard on buns” hold court, far away from the abysmal adult napkins and menacing older brothers who control the weather. Similar to most of the other poems in Slippers, “Yellow There” is an invitation to the secret tree house of association, and other shadow puppets. In such houses, as in so many of Burgess’s poems, rhythm rules all.

And yet, Burgess is careful to remind us the poet is not always a child; he is also a conflicted adult turning to look back, often in fondness, and sometimes, in forgiveness, as in the poem “Childish Things.” While he recalls the lesson, “A dog is not a pony,” the poet also reports, “Sometimes the shame of scrambling for the piñata’s contents outweighs the impulse to pounce.” The first admission is fairly benign: didn’t everyone learn that lesson at some point when we were still small enough to try and innocently fail? The second disclosure, however, carries the added burden we seldom couple with childhood shame: desire. “Sensitive Machine,” the book’s second section, wrestles with this theme to liberating effect. In “Morning Poem,” for example, Burgess flirtatiously ponders, “Am I/in trouble? Do I want to be.” Yes, please: lines like these make it wholly impossible not to envision Eve Sedgwick smiling somewhere in the background.

For these reasons, I suggest Slippers for Elsewhere be read as a manifesto for queer optimism, which, according to Michael Snediker, “doesn’t aspire toward happiness, but instead finds happiness interesting.” Alongside the anxiety, embarrassment, and scenes of adolescent trepidation resides an ebullient outlook in Slippers, best appreciated perhaps with a Cuba Libre on the ferry to Fire Island.

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