“To Bury or Burn: Selected Poems” by Judith Robbins; North Country Press, Unity, Maine, 2020; 90 pages, paperback, $14.95.

I have to tell you that while I generally do not like poems that require footnotes (academic, anecdotal, personal, whatever) to be understood, I do like little prefaces or afterwords that let me know what the poet was thinking when she put a book together. Accordingly, Judith Robbins in her new collection “To Bury or Burn” provides a nice clue about how to read: “What does one do,” she asks in her Author’s Note, “with years of drafts of poems” written in the little outbuilding her husband constructed for her decades ago in Whitefield?

The answer, it appears, was to select from the “drafts of poems / stacked two feet high in my writing house” and bundle them into her third book. Robbins’ first two books, “The North End” and “The Bookbinder’s Wife,”  contained many poems about her painful childhood, as well as straight-on nature poems. “To Bury or Burn” contains a few such poems, but offers more in the way of what might be described as life observations. The thread running through many poems is writing itself — the writing life, the passion for writing, and writing as a means of dealing with emotional and spiritual pain. “Write into the wound with the ink that heals” forms the refrain in “Better than Bacitracin.” In “Ready to Write?”: “The pain of riving done, / become yourself.”

Healing is central to most of the observations, advice and admonitions of these poems. As in Robbins’ other books, the healing is not only physical (“Platform for Healing” describes a friend’s battle with cancer) but emotional (“And Then?” directs: “Cleanse yourself while you live / And remember to forgive yourself”), and ultimately spiritual, from a religious perspective nurtured in her work as a pastor and chaplain. In a series of nature poems through the book’s middle, for example, is “Tribulation” about a startled mother mouse and tiny baby who run off “lost in a sea of grass”; the epigraph from the Gospel of Mark says, “It will go badly for pregnant and nursing women in those days.”

“To Bury or Burn” is in the end a gathering, not just of poems, but for readers, I guess. Many references to literary and mythological influences (Dante in “O Holy Day!”, Grace Paley, Whitman, Rilke, Chinese poets) on recognition make you feel you’re part of a meaningful club.

The book is available from North Country Press and online and local book sellers.


Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Thursdays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at [email protected].

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