22 September 2020

by Douglas Burnet Smith
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95 (softcover) ISBN 9-780889-777729

In award-winning Canadian poet Douglas Burnet Smiths seventeenth collection, Burden – a sparely-written account of a distant cousin’s World War I experience – I often found myself wincing. This visceral reaction’s a testament to the efficacy of the Governor General-nominated poet’s precisely-chosen words; to the bone and spirit-shattering power of war; and to this harrowing, personal story that wields the force of a novel in just fifty-nine taut pages.

The title, Burden, alludes to the seventeen-year-old British soldier, Private Herbert Burden, whom the poet’s relative, Lance Corporal Reginald Smith, befriended and fought alongside; to the permanent weight of war on one’s psyche; and to Reg Smith’s personal burden of being one of the ten soldiers who killed Burden – a deserter suffering from PTSD – upon firing squad order.

The first four poems, written in couplets and each several pages long, are delivered from Reg Smith’s point of view from the war field or from a hospital in England or Scotland, while the final poem, “Herbert Burden,” is a one-pager told from the deserter’s perspective – almost one hundred years after his death – at the unveiling of a statue of himself in Staffordshire, England, in 2000.

What struck me from the initial poem was the poet’s spectacular ability to juxtapose the tragic and the beautiful. Section I reveals the narrator in the thick of battle in Pas-de-Calais, France (1915). Soldiers are poetically “showered in moonlight;” there are “Moths, white moths, thousands/flitting;” and dawn is “the colour of trampled grapes”. Existing within this same poem: “a clump/of mangled men;” rats in “brown waves, like the trench-/water they skirred over;” and “guts worming out of that man/cursing us from a stretcher”. These images, plus the scene of a German soldier “[pissing]/into an open mouth, a man I didn’t want to know,” underscore Burnet Smith’s literary perspicacity, and also highlight war’s inhumane nature. It’s no wonder so many of our ancestors refused to speak about their wartime experiences.

Yet it would be remiss not to acknowledge the degradation and grief so many experienced. A century away from the “Great” War, readers may be unaware of the 666 “wiped out” by chlorine smoke in Wieltje, a town the narrator and his cohorts found “cindered with men”. The dead were members of the Second Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. And regarding the child beside the “waterless fountain” … “Pigeons made special use/of the eyes”.

Of the book’s namesake, Burnet Smith writes “We aimed our guns at him, this waif,/a schoolboy who should have been/bored to death in some dismal classroom”. Burden refused a blindfold, and after the death squad incident, Smith never stopped seeing the boy. The writer cleverly reinforces this haunting – and the injustice Burden suffered – in various ways, ie: viewing “how a single cloud/will desert the others, and float off./How the other clouds/don’t seem to care”.

I’ve reviewed several books in the “Oksana Poetry & Poetics” series, and Burnet Smith’s Burden upholds the series’ tradition of greatness. Exceptional cover, too.


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