This review by Seprela Ellis originally appeared in the latest issue of Valley Voices. Reprinted with permission.
Elizabeth Burk. Louisiana Purchase. Lafayette, LA: Yellow Flag P, 2014. $10.
Louisiana Purchase by Elizabeth Burk is the continuation of the author’s first chapbook Learning to Love Louisiana. Before opening the book to read, I noticed the creative and intriguing cover with a watercolor print. The book, hand-sewn with hemp, is a collection of sixteen poems in two sections, and only 100 copies were printed for each printing. The poet explores life, love, and settlement through language and imagery.
Elizabeth Burk lives between New York and Louisiana, as this collection is composed in a mixture of these two geographical locations. She practices psychology in New York and has a husband in Louisiana. The long distance serves as no obstacle for her; instead, it is the hemp that connects each poem to the other. The first section of the collection concentrates on New York as a home base. This is supported by the poem “Snow Day Up North,” when the poet writes about the husband’s travel from Louisiana to New York being delayed:
A call from Louisiana—
your flight back has been delayed.
The house grows colder, emptier.
I slide sideways into town on icy roads
to pick up essentials—bananas,
bread, a bag of rock salt—
then hurry back home
to await your next call.
Waiting creeps into endurance of coldness as the speaker’s feelings toward her husband freeze into a snow globe. The juxtaposition of human feelings to the frozen ice suggests a love that has been crystalized against the severe weather, and the waiting for a call changes into a waiting for the thaw, described figuratively in the last stanza of the poem:
By the time you come home
I will be one with the landscape,
an Estonian snow queen, mute,
frozen, my heart a lump of ice,
trapped in this snow globe
until you bring the spring thaw.
Contrary to the first section focusing on New York, the second section focuses solely on Louisiana. The third poem in the second section, “Cotton Gin,” really grabs my attention. The narrator talks about a gin that she and her husband almost bought in Henderson, Louisiana. The couple imagines what they can have and do in this spacious building:
Cavernous rooms unfurled with possibilities—
a small restaurant, a few tables, guests,
simmering pots of garlic soup, duck gumbo,
cassoulet. Wooden floors in the great room
invited dancing, a local Cajun/zydeco band,
a boot-stomping cowboy look-alike crowd,
a swing-your-partner contra dance, a masked
ball, New Orleans style. Or poetry readings,
concerts. And parties.
But when they returned to the reality they had to decline the purchase because of the amount of repairs and care required after years of abandonment and neglect. The vivid food imagery suggests a lovely feeling toward Louisiana as a new home base. Looking for a house is in fact looking for a feeling toward a place to be loved, and this feeling surfaces in the title poem “Louisiana Purchase,” which is my personal favorite from the entire collection. It tells the story of how the speaker and her husband took a little white house on a corner lot with a bright red porch with huge shade trees and renovated it to be a Louisiana home; it lists all the problems the house gives the couple and describes the actions that the husband takes to fix them:
He disappears for days, replacing
sewer lines, water pipes, emerging at night
exhausted, covered with Louisiana mud
mixed with lord knows what else.
Air conditioner, newly installed, so cold
that ceiling tiles shrivel—collapse, one tile
at a time, celotex pieces all over the floor.
The poem unfolds with her husband doing more and more repairs as he knocks down the walls, scrapes off the wallpaper, and replaces the roof, windows, walls, fixtures, ceilings, and floors.
However, the poem carries a humorous tone. The poet makes a reference to the actual historic Louisiana Purchase from France: “America got a better deal from Napoleon / at three cents an acre. What exactly did we get // for our money?” She further expresses her dissatisfaction through words such as “watching our dollars / disappear into that giant sinkhole / called repair, renovate, and rebuild.” However, Burk reveals to the reader the true feeling behind all these troubles of house repairs, a feeling for a home in Louisiana, which is suggested in the husband’s answer:
A Louisiana home, my husband answers,
where we can cook meals, invite friends, talk, read,
write, relax, fight about the house and make up.
She suggests that home is where they are and what they do daily. It is a perfect place to experience life and love and do things together as husband and wife. Closing the book, I feel Louisiana Purchase is a perfect place to experience poetry and re-experience human life.