Beautiful Impediment: A History of Guns in the Family by John Burgess

John Burgess’ second book of poems, A History of Guns in the Family, is an ambitious attempt to contain the experiences of an entire lifetime in a compact work of nine poetic sequences. Throughout the volume, Burgess weaves family and personal history, which follow and extend forms such as the sonnet, ekphrastic, and koan. The result is the sense that the author is engaged with a shared history that is itself beyond his text. He leads readers through growing up in a small town, his speaker’s loss of voice, escape to the big city, and meditations through landscape and song to reflect our present day world. The most impressive aspect of the book, however, is Burgess’ style, which reflects his speaker’s sense that his words aren’t up to the task of capturing the ineffable. In this respect—with his phrases interrupted by gaps and reticence—Burgess reminds the reader of other American masters of silence, including Emily Dickinson and Jorie Graham.


Burgess is clearly an author, like Graham, who likes to write cohesive books of poems rather than “collections” of disparate poems, and A History of Guns is woven together with subtleties. The title of the collection, is reflected in the typography: the circle of a twelve-gauge bullet shell marks the title of each poem. Further, in the epigraph, from The Deerslayer, by James Fenimore Cooper, Burgess sets us up for the beauty and reality of a history of guns:


The whole scene was radiant with beauty; and
no one unaccustomed to the ordinary history of
the woods would fancy it had so lately witnessed
incidents so ruthless and barbarous.


Yet Burgess’ poems do not explore the ruthless and barbarous acts of hunting that he sets readers up to encounter; he does, however, give us access to the lives of families in middle America for whom guns and hunting are a regular part of life, and we learn of their lives and perspectives. In the title sequence, he describes these Americans “lifting [their] voices up in song / unionizers organizers revelators / stanzas of ordinary folk / ordering ordinary lives.” The land is important to them, too: “What it takes to bulldoze land / into drumlins. Seed deciduous / woods with forage. / Rake / fields clean of glacial till.” In the last poem of the sequence, “Hymn of Apostasy,” we find a speaker whose family has moved away from religious belief: “O what is sweet heaven / those spirituals rising / cadence of Methodists / dragging the canal.”


However, the most significant issue in A History of Guns is raised by the poems that begin and end the book, which are concerned with this speaker’s voice— and its impediments. In a “mutilated” sonnet form, Burgess redacts words in order to evoke the sense of loss. This act of redaction becomes an impediment, in turn jarring the reader, as in “Sonnets Left Unwritten at the Kitchen Table”:


“Speak [ ] this muted heart / that repeats beats [ ] / [ ] that murmur // that skip that skip [ ] phonographic stutter between / impediment [ ] between / utterance and sound.”


A similar technique is used in the final poem, “Speech Impediment.” Burgess starts the poem with the most basic of human sounds, ah, and ends the poem with, hum. The speaker is concerned with the breath and voice: “between breaths read lips / the pauses / caused by sparse pines / the subtleties of / tongues / on pavement.” Then the impediment becomes gravel that the speaker physically inserts into his mouth to symbolize a struggle between speech or silence and, furthermore, the ironic agency of self-silencing:


he stuffs his mouth with pebbles
gravelly syntax

each word’s weight
stony not retractable


choked utterances
exposed by erosion’s


wash and tumble


spews scree

sedimentary and mumbled


Additionally, Burgess’ form steps down the page mimicking the natural placement of pebbles and the erosion mentioned in the poem; the erosion, too, reflects the speaker’s eroding sense of a strong voice. Yet the astute sounds of “spews scree / sedimentary” and the subtle rhyme of “tumble” and “mumbled” guides readers to the overarching message that despite (and even through) impediment, a beautiful rhythm persists.


The concern with form is also reflected in his ekphrastic sequence, “Landscapes of the 4 Seasons,” where, in seventeen short poems, Burgess responds to the unrolling of a scroll painting by Sesshu. Burgess begins the sequence with a philosophical idea that can be interpreted as a direct reflection of his purpose in writing A History of Guns:


before there is form there is


separate strands of horse hair




So, behind form lies the intention of the poet to grasp at the human experience. All experiences are connected artfully through form and sequence in Burgess’ A History of Guns in the Family. Burgess fluidly expands upon the human experience without overloading readers with it. So much is said in the subtle spaces between his words, mirroring the struggle to find beauty in impediment.


A History of Guns in the Family, Ravenna Press, 2008. Reviewed by Gina Barnard


More John Burgess:


Buy A History of Guns in the Family at Ravenna Press

Read an interview with Burgess at Richard Hugo House

Visit Burgess’ Website:


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