REVIEW: Revolving Questions in CM Burroughs’s Master Suffering

Master Suffering by CM Burroughs

Tupelo Press, January 2021, $18.95 USD


For almost a year now, time has seemed imaginary. I, like so many people around the world, have been staying home and waiting. I’m privileged that I get to do this, that my work has been able to move online. And as a poet, cloistering myself off may have even come a little too easily. But even in the midst of my privilege and (relative) introvert ease, I have found myself grieving. I am grieving for this year. For friends and family. For my canceled plans. For our country’s utter inability (unwillingness) to help those who need it most. I am grieving my 27th birthday and my aging. How could my body have aged and betrayed me while time ceased to exist? And more alarmingly still, how will it betray me further if I get sick or get someone else sick before the vaccine is widely distributed? The micro and the macro are losing all sense of proportion—shading everything I touch.


I carried these circular thoughts into reading CM Burroughs’ second book of poetry, Master Suffering, which is similarly made of ever-revolving questions and evolving curiosity. Burroughs prefaces her collection with two epigraphs, each of which poses a daunting question. The first epigraph from Annie Dillard asks, “Are you a woman or a mouse?” and the second comes from June Jordan, who asks “And what shall we do, those of us who did not die?” These provocative inquiries simmer on the back burner as Burroughs offers her own questions and answers about bodies—our own and the ones we love—and what happens when we lose someone that is a part of us.


Master Suffering is broken into three different sections, each with its own title: “As Lover,” “Nerves Rising,” and “Gleaning, Gleaning.” At first blush, the three sections seem to offer a linear progression of reflection for the speaker(s), as they ponder their own bodily autonomy, gender, family, religion, and most prevalently, loss. In “Body as a Juncture of Almost” Burroughs ends with the lines, “my trying to be. Self that I own./I own her. At least” which despite the lack of a question mark, leaves a note of uncertainty that hovers over the rest of the section (5). This doubt matters because the site of self “should” be concrete. Knowable. Burroughs hesitancy reminds us that this is a fiction.


“As Lover” ends with three poems, all titled “Incidents for the Forgettery” which seem to grow sharper and more intimate with each iteration, as the cast of characters within the collection grows from the speaker and beloved/lover, to include doctors hurrying in and out of focus, and a sister who can’t be saved. “My sister wasn’t/made of such seams” (16). Her lines physically expand across the page, most notably in the third iteration, where we also see line breaks—as if the speaker is allowing us time to breathe in this moment more deeply.


The second and third sections continue this sharpening intimacy even as they expand their cast to include a brother, a mother, a father, an unflinching view of a hospital room, and a life support machine. But Burroughs’ poems do not allow us to rest in the narrative. The use of repeated titles, first in “Incidents of Forgettery” (x4), then “Dear Liver” (x3), “God Letter” (x6), and finally, “When She is Looking Mean and Impressive” (x2) create a whirlpool of inner-momentum. This formal scaffolding reminds us that we do not think, or move, or grieve in only one direction (forward) but rather we are constantly cycling. We double back on ourselves. Grief hurts us over and over, even when we are medicated, even when we can name our feelings.


In “God Letter,” Burroughs writes:


...I would keep on the same way for years, through a therapist

or two, one who was a family friend and had known

my sister, who had me pay for my sessions myself I was 19,

it was $1 per session for me to feel empowered in my

healing, and he told me to hug my mother and

tell her I love her and I did. Who would put

so much sadness in one person, do you know

what the dark looks like and that it has its own

gravity and how once I started taking anti-depressants

and finally felt “normal sadness” I was amazed...(36)


It is the detailing of these small moments, the strange mundanity of the cost of a therapy session with a family friend that enriches each of the poems in this collection and makes us feel them so intimately. Almost as if we are remembering them instead of reading them.


No, we are not linear, and neither are these beautifully and masterfully wrought poems as they turn over and over under the same names. What should we do, “those of us who did not die”? Burroughs does not give us an easy answer, but she does offer us an answer which is messy and perfect in real life. In the final poem, “To Be Saved,” the speaker concludes. “Signs happen such that/We are always gasping and awakening” (46). We will wake up and start again, over and over, and these poems (thank god) can help strengthen us through this period of perpetual gasps and evasive answers.

Roseanna Alice Boswell is a queer poet from Upstate New York. Her work has appeared or will soon appear in: Driftwood Press, Jarfly Magazine,Capulet Magazine, and elsewhere. Roseanna holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in English at Oklahoma State University. Her first collection, Hiding in a Thimble, is forthcoming with Haverthorn Press in 2021. Find her on Twitter @swellbunny posting about feminism and her love of exclamation marks.

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