While it is generally a mistake to assume the speaker of a poem is the poet himself, Belmont is an introspective book featuring many overtly autobiographical gestures. Taking its title from the Massachusetts town where poet Stephen Burt lives, the collection explore the pleasures of adulthood and the security of home through poems that are fixed in definite times and recognizable places and often refer to specific people. Objects, even, have specificity; in “Over Wingaersheek Beach,” readers are told that “Nathan’s kite shows a pattern of angelfish, coral, and sea stars,” taking the vivid description so far as to denote possession—the kite in question is Nathan’s—and in fact Nathan and other family members are mentioned by name frequently in the book, lending the collection the narrative specificity of a memoir.
The speaker—Burt, readers will generally assume—journeys occasionally to the DC area and Mexico and elsewhere, but remains mostly in the greater Boston area, finding occasions for poems along Storrow Drive, in Kendall Square and Porter Square, and in Black Ink, a small curiosity shop in Cambridge. Belmont, a small town situated between Cambridge and Waltham, is described here both in specific detail and as a generalized suburban locale where the speaker has settled down to raise children. “Sing for us whose troubles // are troubles we’re lucky to have: / cold orange juice, and cold coffee,” the speaker intones. The word “cocoon” does not appear in the book until it finally comes along several times in part 3, but poems throughout the book suggest a speaker cocooned by comforts of family and middle aged prosperity, and Belmont often finds occasions for poetry in domestic objects: tea towels, a stapler, and an illuminated globe, among others. Writing about the suburbs is dangerous territory; there are limitless ways one can come across as self-indulgent or privileged or out-of-touch. Fortunately, suburban life is treated here as less an occasion for self-congratulation than for reflection, and these poems are frank about the comfortable tameness and uncomfortable complacency inherent in the world of the poems, demonstrating awareness of how fortunate so many suburban denizens are, and how tenuous that fortune can be. “Gentle” serves here as both a descriptor and a prayer.
These poems show the sensitivity of a critic, and Burt’s tone balances levity and rumination well, as when he describes Heaven—someone else’s version of it, he says—as “half a moon, / laughter through the quad, and cloudlessness,” admitting a few lines later, “How finely weighted in my favor / most of our contests in this life have been;” or when he calls the soul “Easy to recognize in its costume / made up of Sunday puzzles and Scrabble tiles.”
Belmont is structured in three parts, with one poem prefacing the three sections, and epigraphs from Shakespeare, Willa Cather, and Octavio Paz. Part 1 describes life in Belmont in terms of preoccupied insularity, with the main event being the birth of the speaker’s son. The poems here seem to gently move back in time, hour by hour, proceeding as the section progresses from “Poem of Nine A.M.” to “Belmont Overture (Poem of Eight A.M.)” and so on, leading readers step by step into an early morning dream state.
As if taking up the matters of dreams for section 2, the book proceeds to wander through deep yearnings, uncertainties, and questions about sexuality, transposing these worries with pop culture icons and bits of chatter and childhood TV shows, with “microfiber and leather,” and “opalescent plastic buttons.” The poems in the middle of the book offer a kaleidoscopic jumble of images and textures and emotions but often hint at a curious lack of agency, conveying less the sense of a freeze frame than of a deliberate stalling out.
The scope widens in the last section and returns to more narrative concerns, and in the third section the poems also travel away from New England. Some of the poems here moralize heavily on matters such as the dangers of taking things for granted, and the lack of environmental stewardship in contemporary life, but these are nonetheless balanced by lighter moments and lyrical descriptions, as in the lovely “El Nido” and “Butterfly with Parachute.”
The strong organizing structure supports the thematic and circular congruencies of the poems, as when sesame seeds appearing in the book’s opening poem are invoked again when “the little boys throw seeds” toward the end in “Living Next To The River.” Belmont is filled with echoing images like this, and Burt likewise has adept sonic sensibilities. “The geese alight / at ease, a scatterplot,” he says in “Helplessness;” clipped lines like these present a striking visual metaphor and simultaneously reward the ear with the slant rhymes in geese and ease, and the consonance of paired l’s and t’s in “alight” and “plot.”
With lyricism and a finely tuned temporality, Belmont offers readers a world that is cushioned, cocooned. Yet the security of such a world is tenuous by nature and, Burt gently admonishes, “We should never look down / on what gives strangers comfort, / on what we learn too late that we might need.”