Much like Graham Burchell’s other 2008 chapbook, Vermeer’s Corner, his recent effort Ladies of Divided Twins draws its inspiration from an external source. In the foreword he writes of a book called ‘Divided Twins’ that shows the similarities and differences between Eastern Siberian and Alaskan women, and of being ‘drawn to the images of women, particularly the old Siberian ladies (babushkas) wrapped in layer upon layer of protection from the bitter cold.’ From this starting point Burchell wishes to show his ‘expressions of fabled or real encounters with the opposite sex either as family, wives, girlfriends…’
A cold wind blows strong through these poems. Religion is shown to be an important part of the lives for a number of the women, partly as an expression of faith, but perhaps as a device to keep their loneliness at bay. And these women are often lonely, for various reasons – whether it is Lee buying fish on a Friday night, comparing her newspaper wrapped cod to a baby in swaddling: ‘So Lee may hurry home with a warm vinegared baby / that she will reheat in the microwave’, and later, ‘as another quiet week closes / and a quiet Christmas looms.’ or the heroine from November 6th who wants a divorce and has her life compared to a broken piano in a poem only 16 lines long that is nonetheless among the saddest in the chapbook.
Burchell is unafraid to write his poems using variations of meter and with stanzas ranging from triplets to quintains to free verse to help capture the essence of the woman he is ‘expressing’. The styles used are as varied as the women themselves, which both refreshes the text and helps to honour the importance of the message being conveyed. These women, Burchell seems to be saying, are organic creatures and will not be confined within the cage of repetitious four-line stanzas. The poetry should be moulded to who they are, and not the other way around. Elle’s Competitive Nature, one of the strongest poems in the collection and perhaps the longest, is written in a series of broken stanzas that scatter across two pages as we learn of her difficulties that come from having ‘breasts and brain’ too big for her body. Elle, ‘strong willed yet brittle’ has a strong fear of commitment, pregnancy, life, death. We emerge from the poem with a strong sense of this woman, aided in no small manner by the way in which it was composed, all jagged stanzas and broken lines.
The collection is split into six sections, each of which possesses a strong thematic cohesion. The third section, ‘Family Fragments’, offers tender portraits of members of Burchell’s family, from his immediate relatives to more remote relations he knows only through her Sunday School second prize book. Section four, ‘Influential’, is comprised of three poems which range in subject matter from a first kiss to a Dream of Lunch with Carolyn.
These poems are sensitive about their topic without creating precious dolls of the female protagonists. These women live and lie and are sad and they laugh, and it is not only the beautiful moments that are captured. To Burchell’s credit, however, he manages to describe beautifully even those scenes which are inherently not, and at the end of the chapbook his perception of women has clarified and, perhaps, so has the reader’s.
Ladies of Divided Twins is available from Erbacce Press