The First Inhabitants of Arcadia


Poems by Christopher Bursk
978-1-55728-813-4 (paper)
March 2006


Add to Cart

Herman Melville, Matthew Arnold, Sarah Orne Jewett, Dusty Rhodes, and Hoyt Wilhelm skinny-dip and pick up gondoliers and cut figure eights into the ice in Christopher Bursk’s new collection. But the main cast of characters for these poems is the alphabet itself, “the first inhabitants of Arcadia, / now homesick, curious exiles from Eden.” Here are a boy’s first investigations into the nature of language as he studies the backs of baseball cards, and a young man’s infatuation with the “F-word.” The titles sing their lettered songs: “An Ode to j,” “M-m-m Good!” and “O in Trouble.”

Here are “reading lessons,” the author’s exploration of the curses and blessings of the word. It is about the fall from paradise and the gifts that fall makes possible. And over the whole book broods the great lexicographer, Samuel Johnson, that deeply troubled caretaker of the mother tongue. More than an ABC book, this collection asks questions at the very heart of how we understand the world and shows us the glory and silliness at the heart of human life.

Christopher Bursk, recipient of NEA, Guggenheim, and Pew fellowships, is professor of English at Bucks County Community College in Pennsylvania. He is the author of a number of collections, including Cell Count, Ovid at Fifteen, and The Improbable Swervings of Atoms, winner of the 2004 Donald Hall Prize in Poetry. He has been recognized for his work with prisoners, the homeless, food banks, and women’s shelters.

“Chris Bursk honors the human spirit without ignoring the destructive forces around us. What’s more, he does it with language that never alters. How much I admire his intelligent, elegant, and deeply compassionate work.”
—Sy Safransky, editor, The Sun

“In these lively and moving poems, Bursk implicates English itself in his coming-of-age conflicts. And what Bursk humorously wishes in his lyric about ‘suffixes and prefixes’ is true—he is ‘Irreplaceable, / incomparable, indispensable.’”
—Philip Fried, editor, Manhattan Review

“Armed with a refreshing sense of play and an eye for the luminous moment, Bursk is one of our best practitioners of the narrative poem. Yet he is also wonderfully lyrical: his language is honed and hits you where you live.”
—Steven Huff, author of The Water We Came From