burn lake carrie fountain

2 posts

Constructing Some Deconstruction, Derrida-Like

Yesterday I sent my message in two bottles to mentors-in-waiting Marie and Naomi (there’s a poem right there!). And, via the comments section, my good virtual friend, Carter, alerted me that I had stumbled upon a winner when I picked up Carrie Fountain’s book, Burn Lake.

For reasons I cannot fathom, the proof is always in the pudding (which we never eat in this household). Carter, a champion of the journal American Poetry Review, let me know that the latest issue offered up three coins, all of them Fountain’s.

A little research, and I discovered one of the three was posted live on the Net. It’s called “The Student”, and requires more than a passing familiarity with Jacques Derrida, some French philosopher or other famous for deconstruction. And although I am no philosopher, I do know a thing or two about deconstruction, having had more than one of my  seaside sand castles destroyed by my older brother—this after hours and hours of construction on my part.

You see? Philosophy is easy. But it might not help you understand “The Student.” My suggestion is that you read it, then read it again. In time, your “ah’s” will begin to construct “hah’s!” and thus are Joycean epiphanies made.

Meanwhile, what started the whole discussion: I started the 2009 National Poetry Series winner Burn Lake last night. Apparently there are a series of Burn Lake poems within it. Here’s the first, which appeared in Poetry:

“Burn Lake” by Carrie Fountain
For Burn Construction Company


When you were building the I-10 bypass,
one of   your dozers, moving earth
at the center of a great pit,
slipped its thick blade beneath
the water table, slicing into the earth’s
wet palm, and the silt moistened
beneath the huge thing’s tires, and the crew
was sent home for the day.
Next morning, water filled the pit.
Nothing anyone could do to stop it coming.
It was a revelation: kidney-shaped, deep
green, there between the interstate
and the sewage treatment plant.
When nothing else worked, you called it
a lake and opened it to the public.
And we were the public.


And here’s “Burn Lake 2,” the sequel, cooler still (if lakes be cool, and they do, at least up north):


“Burn Lake 2” by Carrie Fountain

All afternoon I’ve been swimming out
to the deepest part of the lake
and sinking down as far as I can
because for a long time now
I’ve wanted to feel dead and alive
at the same time
and for whatever reason I believe
this is the way to do it. So far,
it’s impossible to feel dead.
Instead, when I reach the cold sheets
of water toward the bottom of the lake
all the lights go on inside my body
and my legs pump, and before long
I see the determined lines the sun makes
on the surface of the water, and I reach
the living world again, the thin limbs
of the salt cedar wagging at the shoreline,
the wuzz of traffic on the interstate,
and my mother, far off, reading a paperback
on a little shelf of sand, smoking
one of those long , brown cigarettes
she slips in one sublime gesture
from out of a clicking leather case.
There is something that keeps
occurring to me in the moment I break
the water, though by the time I take a breath
I’ve forgotten what it was.


Strong finish, that. Subtle finish, too. A nice mix. A “how did she do that?” mix. Maybe Marie, Naomi, or Carrie herself can comment. Maybe they even will.

Meanwhile, back to swimming my own poetic lakes….

Dear Marie and Naomi: Want to Read Some Poems?


Every year, the National Poetry Series out of Princeton (I hear they have a college) stages an open competition for outstanding poetry manuscripts. To enter, it costs 30 bucks, and the submission period takes place from New Year’s Day to the end of February.

Though I’ve never entered, one thing that I like about the contest is that it is judged blindly. Top poets, the final readers, don’t know who wrote what. Submitting poets are not allowed to provide biographical info, a table of contents, an acknowledgments page, nothing.

St. Billy of Collins says this about the National Poetry Series: “I know of no program more vital to the launching of a poet’s career than The National Poetry Series. For over 30 years, 5 poets annually have enjoyed the immense benefit of having their manuscripts transformed into handsome books by some of the most prestigious publishers in the country. Measured by these hard, practical results alone, the Series deserves the support of every devotee of poetry. My own Questions About Angels, selected by Edward Hirsch in 1990, marked the true beginning of my public life in poetry.”

Which brings me to the reason I am writing this: Yesterday I checked Carrie Fountain’s Burn Lake out of the library and am looking forward to reading it this week. It had a big stamp on the cover that read “WINNER, National Poetry Series, Selected by Natasha Trethewey,” which made me curious (and you already know I’m the curious type).

As is true with every poetry book I read, I first count the number of poems (here it’s 48) and then look at the acknowledgments page for marketing possibilities (here it includes AGNI, Ascent, Borderlands Texas Poetry Review, Cave Wall, Cimarron Review, Crazy Horse, cream city review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Marlboro Review, The Missouri Review, Southwestern American Review, Swink, and The Texas Observer).

Finally, I look at the “Thanks” entries. In the case of Carrie Fountain’s once-anonymous manuscript, thanks were extended “for help with this manuscript” to Marie Howe (!) and Naomi Shihab Nye (!). In Nye’s case, Fountain wrote, “My deepest gratitude to my teacher and friend Naomi Nye.”

Gulp. This once-anonymous manuscript forwarded into an open competition clearly had some high-octane help! Which makes me wonder, “Outside of signing up for an MFA, which is tough to do when you have a FTJ (full-time job), what can I do to improve my new poetry manuscript’s chances for the big-time?”

Such a rhetorical question! I haven’t signed on for any teachers, is what I can do, and should do if I decide to pony up 30 bucks for the 2019 competition and want to give it a Kentucky Derby’s chance (I’ll take the outside post, even) by having some very cool poets like Marie and/or Naomi give feedback first.

So this is an open letter to you, Marie and Naomi. No, it’s not anonymous, but I know that neither of you will be readers for the 2019 competition, so it’s all good. No worries.

Drop me a line! Take in a poem or two (I know you’re busy, so one or two will do)! Teach me things!