What other dangers will you step through tonight?
The hours baggy and gathering.
There is nothing mere about this.
I wanted like hot skin thumping around
the splinter caught within. That, and a tidy gold peace.
—from “Where God Was Not”
Libby Burton’s collection Soft Volcano is a delicate and sensuous meditation on the quotidian. By taking the smallest detail and transcending into the metaphysical, Burton is doing what the best writers do, asking questions that linger in the mind and heart.
Swinging between themes fluidly, Soft Volcano investigates marriage, parenthood, nature, wealth, spirituality, and philosophy without ever turning pedantic. In “Singles,” images combine abstractions to leave a romantic film:
Money and the scent a daylong body weeps. Sleep like a dress put on.
I had fixed my teeth and stopped with the meat,
thinking I could blend in rich.
The day turned night, turned linen then. Fat with wet all over.
In “We Are Married,” the next poem, it is as if a leap of decades has taken place in very little white space.
And have been as lonely as the crusted shoreline.
That soft craw holding disaster, your sweating hands, the sunlight
still undulant and visible.
Replace the milk with white goodness and find a less difficult way to say this.
A dead child is my unnamed god, dusty as a pantry.
Grand in scope, yet minute in detail, each poem catches a moment in time and expands into the vast infinite. Normally, this penchant for abstraction is a risk that often falls flat or drifts into tedium, especially when young poets reach for the stars. Yet Burton has found a rhythm, tone, and style that puts her at the table with big rollers: Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and Emily Dickinson.
Every poem in Soft Volcano has at least one brilliant line. “Telekinesis” begins: “The bruise of a couch and the woman I will never love are at it again tonight.” “The Sheets and Sun Are Soft and Good But This Isn’t Food Enough” has a daring observation not many writers would bet on, “It’s true: people who joke about money / don’t need more money.” “Wedding Season” concludes with “The men drink like they are not children at all.” “And This is Rare” finishes with “The woman at the bar clings to her own beautiful hair.” “Bottle of Blues” captures the Plath-like emptiness of daily survival:
These days I am taming the feral love of distances.
The weird lust of the every day.
Soothing the hook of sleeping with the beauty of small pharmaceuticals.
Tiny observations combined with family anecdotes turn subtle with an image or a well-placed word. Soft Volcano is not a collection of fireworks, no spoken-word artists screaming into the microphone. Nor is it a collage of academic obscurities poking irony at current political catchphrases. These poems are honest, beautiful, felt, and dredged from internal-personal experiences, gilded in precise calligraphy. Burton is filling the lonely with hope, extracting the wisdom from relationships, listening to that inner voice that guides us all. With paintbrush and chisel, well aware of the canon, Soft Volcano is flowing with lava and love, an offering that assuages soul-fire.