“To be Human, Awake, and Vulnerable,” Derek Sheffield on Never Night by Derick Burleson

Never Night by Derick Burleson, Marick Press, www.marickpress.com



Derek Burleson’s Never Night begins,

The sun and dust and wind and straw and wheat

stubble and me and a tractor howling

before the plow, and my dead grandfather

drifting over my shoulder, whispering,

whispering all through that long July. . . .

And the book delivers on the promises made in these opening lines, offering well-crafted poems filled with all kinds of rewards: lush sounds, muscular lines when they’re called for; controlled pacing, a marriage of sound and sense, and more. Never Night includes poems of place and family, youth and memory, written with surprise and with overt nods to the masters (Shakespeare, Milton, Homer, etc.) and out of what many would call the Northwest tradition (Hugo, Stafford, and Wagoner). For those who appreciate tightly woven sections making a tightly woven book, this is for you. There are all kinds of wonderful resonance within and between the sections from Alabaster Caverns in the first section to Persephone and Her Husband in the last. 


This book is a journey; an open, heartfelt lyrical journey from the writer’s youth to the writer’s experience of fatherhood. The speaker as an infant in the garden heralds his infant daughter in the garden where he’s “learning to crawl again.” There’s wisdom here (and a background of wisdom literature) and self-revelation (he’s a Star Trek nerd, he lost patience with his daughter) that tempers and grounds the romantic urges. Gods come and go through a deep, abiding humanity that spreads wide its arms. In the middle of this journey is that never night of Alaska, evoked beautifully (and a bit hauntingly) with plenty of local color. Here and elsewhere, there’s an acute sense of cosmic time, of time measured in seasons and orbits, in behavior, and in death and rebirth. 


The book’s title works on many levels for it is not only Alaska in the perpetual sun of summer, but also being a parent. In a sense, a romantic one, you’ll never experience the “dark night of the soul” again because your daughter has awakened you to love. In another sense, however, there’s a kind of “always night” coming with this, and Burleson’s closing poems bear this out. As the poet wakes to love, he also wakes to a deepened sense of mortality—his own through the lens of this daughter and his daughter’s.  The seven-part poem, Mirabel, ends,

                        Will we be dead someday?

                        When we are dead will all our blood run out?

                        We have to take very good care of me

                        or I could die.  I could.

Never Night evokes place, but more so, the complexity of what it is to be human, awake, and vulnerable. 




Derek Sheffield won the inaugural Hazel Lipa Environmental Chapbook Award sponsored by Flyway at Iowa State University and judged by Debra Marquart.  His full-length ms. was a finalist for the 2008 Brittingham Prize and a semi-finalist for the 2008 Walt Whitman Award.  His work has appeared recently in The Georgia Review, Orion, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ecotone, and is forthcoming in Poetry and Margie.  He has won the James Hearst Poetry Prize judged by Li-Young Lee and the Sparrow Prize in Poetry sponsored by The LBJ:  Avian Life, Literary Arts.  He teaches creative writing and nature writing at Wenatchee Valley College and served as the 2007 Writer-in-Residence at the Bernheim Research Forest near Louisville, KY.

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