Thursday, August 30, 2007



The Salesman’s Shoes by James Roderick Burns
(Modern English Tanka Press, 2007)

In the early ‘80s, Cy Curnin of the Fixx famously complained “Why don’t they do what they say/ Say what they mean/ One thing leads to another.” Ah, the charming innocence of those Reagan years. Things were simpler then. Our conservative Republican president knew how to cut and run from the Middle-East, pulling the Marines out of Lebanon while the going was good. Donahue was the only talk-show on the air, and he dealt with these things called “issues.” We all wanted more from our politics and our pop-culture… more openness, more honesty, more words. In today’s cultural wasteland of morning talk show marathons and the “hey, let’s put this on YouTube” mentality, form gives way to content and content is whatever you feel like putting out there. Many don’t exactly “say what they mean.” Instead, they say much more than what they mean, and show more than any of us want to see.

It is fascinating to find contemporary poets that buck the larger cultural trend, of linguistic, intellectual, and emotional exhibitionism, and undertake the challenge of expressing their emotions and thoughts in strict poetic form. The British poet James Roderick Burns recently imposed such a challenge on himself in The Saleman’s Shoes (2007), a marvelous collection of Tanka poems published by Modern English Tanka Press. For those of you, like me, who wonder, “Hey what’s that?” It is a classic Japanese form that adheres to a strict syllable count of 5-7-5-7-7.

The collection is dedicated to his wife and daughter, and in memoriam to Jack Burns, the poet’s deceased grandfather, and perhaps the more blue-collar salesman of the title. The book is an episodic journey through the life of the poet, a mid-level office worker in Scotland with a wife and a young child. The poems deal with the daily frustrations of office work, the awkward loneliness of blue collar work, and the emotional tug of the family. Under the strictures of Tanka, the most successful poems in the collection open a deep well of ideas and emotions through a few choice words, and well-drawn, carefully juxtaposed images.

Much of the collection looks at the two broad types of employment available to most of us: blue-collar work or mid-level office jobs. The first poem sketches a poignant picture of the solitude of night watchmen all over the world:

Seeing traffic lights
sequencing through green, amber
red for nobody
the night watchman’s heart blows out
like a torn bicycle tyre.

This is a loneliness that not even company can shed. Without pouring bathetic tears for the working man, Burns let’s us know the plight of the blue-collared, salaried employee who can’t even fantasize about better days, like at least the office drone can. Other poems capture the numbing routine of the middle-class familiar to the poet:

Middle class at last--
after a blossom shower
fussing and tutting
over these sticky traces
matted into the footwell.

The poems that acknowledge the pitfalls of blue-collar work, like the first poem, give the poems critiquing middle-class living greater depth and weight. In this collection, unlike in many of the pop-cultural representation of middle-class ennui, there’s no easy romanticizing of the blue-collar “alternative” to office work.

Indeed, Burns captures how frighteningly sealed the life of an office worker can be when in his cubicle he drifts to thoughts of his daughter:

Hot stink of metal,
shrieks and the roundabout whoosh--
in this cubicle
how sorry I feel for you
my unfortunate daughter.

This is a multi-generational No Exit set in the office park. These kinds of poems have an emotional and intellectual depth that one would be hard press to find in a treatise about the work world. The noise of blue-collar construction work (Is the noise coming from outside or from inside the poet’s head?) makes the office worker in his cubicle-cage feel sorry for his daughter. But why? There are a couple of answers to this question, and they are tied together. The poet laments that his daughter will likely grow up to face the limited choices of exhausting blue-collar work or office drudgery. However, the working poet also fears that his cubicle-cage traps him at home with worries about what needs to be done tomorrow so that he cannot always be the father he wishes to be.

Still, the exigencies of capitalism cannot bury all the beauty of life beneath paper work and metallic dumping grounds. We have limited free spaces where quiet moments of contemplation can emerge. Burns captures such a moment with subdued wording, but transparent generosity of spirit:

How wonderful -- snow
bright and short-lived descending
with equal magic
on the couple from Iran
and our wide-eyed one year old.

Through this small portrait, he shows us the beauty that can embrace us all. The poem’s soft caress is more powerful when placed within a collection of other poems that caress, kiss, kick and scream baby, wife, and work.

Of course, not all the poems in the collection are successful. Reading collections of works in strict form is a little like watching a tightrope act; you want to see success as much as you want to see misstep as long as the tightrope walking poet has the safety net of talent beneath him. James Roderick Burns has a strong net as a gifted and talented poet who says much with few words. Thus, his collection of Tanka poems, The Salesman’s Shoes, is a success, leaving you wanting more… more Tanka poems, more poems, more words that mean more than what they say and lead from one powerful thing to another.


Carlos Hiraldo is an Associate Professor of English in the City University of New York. He has published various poems and reviews. His book Segregated Miscegenation was published in 2003 by Routledge. His article on Asian Latinos was recently accepted by the Asian American Law Journal.


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