The Vital System

This collection of poems, published in 2012 by Tupelo Press, is the first I’ve read of CM Burroughs’ work. The slim text, her first collection of poems, is beautifully designed and the poems sing from the pages, and deftly slide from one to the next. CM Burroughs’ voice on the page is immediate and vivid, exploring internal spaces, corporeality, pain and suffering, and different modes of loving. Remembrance of Burrough’s sister is heartily sprinkled throughout the text, and while she is not named, the absent sister is in the core of the book, an invisible magnet.

Table of Contents, The Vital System: Poems

For example, consider the first Poem, Dear Incubator, which I had the pleasure of hearing Burrough’s read at Ann Arbor’s University of Michigan, on October 17, 2019 (excerpt from p. 3)

How can I ask you from inside the poem- what sense did I have so early…So unformed./ I was tangled in tubes (that keeps my heart pumping; that kept my lungs from collapsing; food/ to the body; oxygen to the brain).

You are everything and nothing.

A surrogate. A packing of half-made sensory detail; a past.

I have scars on my belly in shapes of fish…Where sensors tore thin skin.  What a tragedy to / be powerless. And yet, I controlled the choreography of everyone around me (the check of/ vitals; arms through the arm ports; my parent’ speech; also, there were surgeons.)

 This initial piece sets the book up with embodied theatricality, and indeed, the poems move through many spaces, in addition to the first space. Place occupies an important priority in the poems, as they move faster than the speed of light, from the first high stakes space, to the departed sister’s graveside, to a high tech television studio or film set, in Video Shoot, (p 47) a bed/ a bedroom, where sometimes the reader is invited in, but are compelled to stand behind the velvet ropes, as if touring a historic site. At other times, the reader is intimately close, invited to lean into private spaces, as in the provocative and powerful poem Clitoris. (p. 12)

However, the first space is polished, light, clean and scented with antiseptic. “The Theatre” as the OR or Operating Room used to be called, is a hospital space filled with anxiety, fever, illness, pain, heroism, recovery. We are mortal and this is high-stakes drama. The space clearly is constructed as a preemie unit, or possibly neonatal intensive care. Dear Incubator seems to be written from the point of view of the infant, this is a wildly creative choice that brings up all sorts of spiritual questions, and a web of musings about consciousness. 

Who is speaking? Can such tiny infants recall such things? Will this baby survive? The thought of a tiny person, conscious and feeling pain, hearing her parents speak, monitoring the comings and goings of hospital staff stirs up so much. Additionally, we discover that this infant “makes it” but the reader is left wondering, is this the absent sister? Is this a memory of the poet’s? Who is this partially-formed being, dependent upon medical technology, receiving touch, nutrition, life-support, and also aware of how she directs “the choreography.”

When Burroughs is behind the podium, a petite stylish woman who laughs as she turns on the microphone, she seems to occupy more than the physical space of her frame. She embodies her poems with melodic voice and a serious, yet slanted delivery. She forms the words of the poem with warmth and grace, yet there is a distance and deep range and precision. 

Her voice gains power as she read the poem Raving : I and the scale grows to mythic feminine; Diana the Huntress may well be circumnavigating a battlefield. 

“There was blood. Testicles lay in the streets
Like confetti post-parade. I was glad: Diana
after Actaeon’s own salivating pack consumed him-
Limb by limb licked, tendons trailing.”

To re-familiarize myself with the references in this stanza, a little research is necessary. I visit here and find an interesting article that restates the classical myth of Diana and Actaeon. Within the article, I found many 17th century Europeans paintings, used as illustrations to the myth, which I found topical.

The way in which the above example foregrounds a particular problem- the portrayal of classical Greek myths- informs my interpretation of this poem. I have selected this example to illustrate the historically and culturally complex dynamic which is refuted/reframed/renavigated/reclaimed by Burroughs’ poems.

With a critical view of this Italian painting, I want to make plain an example of how Romantic European traditions in canvas painting totally white-washes the complex relationship between Grecian and Egyptian culture, both trading cultures, and denies the Africanist origination of Actaeon. However, I was intrigued by the artist’s portrayal of the fallen hero as earthy, strong and powerful, and the oddly contextual but ironic rack of antlers he wears as costume in the painting.

The ruins of Thebes lie today within/underneath Luxor, and Actaeon is a Theban hero. Immediately, the surface of the poem cracks open for me, and begins to reveal complexity within. While in the Italian painting, Acteon is of a darker complexion than the bathing maidens, his portrayal is far different the body of an actual Thebean hero. This site offers a thumb-nail sketch of how Actaeon might have dressed. Certainly he would have been clad either in Egyptian regalia, or in “commoner’s linen,” if he is intended to be disguised, which is not at all suggested by the painter. A very euro-canvas-traditional costume is depicted; painting tropes win over logic and accuracy.

Questions of race, ethnic heritage, female empowerment emerge. Also implied by this rhetorical research into the myth and its interplay within the poem, this reimagining of Diana’s power is a statement about identity.

Again, salient aspects of place and time, corporeality, and voice circulates between the poems.

In Raving: I (p.11) a seed is planted for the sowing of richer investigations. The connotations which arise from the author’s focus on this particular myth grounds the themes in the book. Identity, transformation, disease, medical intentions and mortality and transformation lie underneath and within the poems. Female power, violence and mourning sift beneath the leaves.

Burroughs, who is a black poet born in Atlanta, Georgia, and currently resides in Chicago, navigates contemporary political content, as well as intense personal material in her work. The relationship between the poems, and the subtle and organic structuring of the poem collective, effectively prioritizes lived experience with epic imagination.

Along the way, complex identities of Americans of color begin to thrum, and this is hinted at with the fierce repetition which ends the poem, Raving : I.

“I wore red paint, salvaging neither plated breast,
Nor firm mouth. Not once was I tender. 

I wanted them wasted- him, him, him, him him” 

In the mid-point of the text is a tightly woven three-part poem The Vital System which I presume to be important as it illuminates the title of the book. This poem is vivid and enigmatic, replete with erogenous language and complex hot images. The voice and perspective shifts in each section of this poem. Part I contains gendered images in its early lines, then shifts to an interrogation of collage as identity. (p 27)

I, in strutting cock stance,
anatomy blazing, phonic, self-
made mid-light….
I trans-
formed: across canvas stretched
white, a black bone bi-continental collage,
a put-upon pace.

Later in Part II, and Part III, Burroughs zooms into extreme close-up, richly describing a bucolic landscape of sex, agency, injury and action:
her bastion evidences fable: he plants his rollicking root. Blood lets, not enough to regret, repent. A body politic ravels. (p. 28)

and in the third section, zooms in still closer to the erogeny of the lived female body:

“Labial. Women grapple-hook women. Plum loaf, garnet welt, milk smear, complexion an arousal-lidded cunt. Mode: additive.” (p. 29)

In Part VI of the collection, Burroughs’ ability to create texts that works so well on many different registers is crystal clear. The first poem in this section, My helpless need to repeat, re-view, re-vise, (p. 55) is clever and self-possessed, also honest. Perhaps this quick switch of perspective makes this very brief poem such a wonderful start to a new section.

She primps in the powder room. She performs in public. She visits a therapist to leave/ her self with someone else. Repeat I, I, I.

I must tell you, and possibly you know, there is only this stage.”

Women, performing our public selves in private, women preparing the private self in public, trying to get “out of my head” through talk-therapy: how many women can see their lives in Burroughs’ lines?

The next poem Black Memorabilia, is a vast shift of perspective, and the reader is invited to a witnessing of the lived black body, the female body. In section I, Burrough’s shines her light onto and between a Black American experience, overcoming racism and oppression. I derive this meaning from Burrough’s pacing, and swift juxtapositions of body systems and phenomena: pain, teeth, nails, action, agency, body organs, (shoulder, tongue, skin) with more abstract ideas, such as anthems, interrogatives, loyalty. The line “When he fucks me, isn’t he uprising?” (p. 57) is preceded by an interior first section.

In this section, I can intimate by the word [Reclamation], set aside in brackets by the author, a rebellion/ a re-working/a re-visioning? I see a hologram of a certain woman of color, no a collage of multiple holographs, all of whom work in a domestic sphere, catalogued in the first line. Regarding voice, here is the coolest tonality in the set of four sections, however, there is a quick shift from outside to interior spaces: her/she to I/what I’ve done.

Here I excerpt the entire section I, from page 56.

[In this position in the poem: a maidservant.]
See: mammy/nanny/au pair, slipping into
tarnish like caviar spoons. This is a corner
for thinking about what I’ve done—placed
my hands over a series, a collection, of
rouged lips and their melanin-fringed rims.
[Reclamation.] i have faced the question:
What are you? In my dream, I am flanked by
such a number of windows that my limbs are
bound by light. Yellow girl. How do I say
no to that much canvas? As the poet of the
poem, I say No. I say Black. Behind me,
horizon fills with saliva.

In conclusion, this stunning book is one you will read and enjoy on so many levels. Intellectually stimulating, deeply felt, musical and vivid to all the senses, it also contains so much soul and yes, love. Eros, obviously is romantic love, fraught with all its failures and perils, yet phermonaly-speaking, unavoidable. Phillia, love of the mind drives the deep themes and investigations of the texts. Pragma, long-standing love, imbues the text with dedication: “for my sister”. And there is much focus on the sister, a dear one, and her pain, and the pain Burroughs survived in losing her too soon. A life all too brief, yet held in the shrine of remembrance.

The other forms of love humans create and experience, for example playful love, love for humanity and familial love are present as well, but painted so effectively in the poems; they become like live oaks in a landscape. There, but also part of the air we breathe.

In conclusion, Burrough’s outstanding collection of poems is a bit like a spiritual journey. There is wracking pain, take-your-breath-away pleasure and vivid, torqued and intrepid writing. These fascinating texts teem with ferocious resilience. I know I will return to these poems many times in the coming years, touching my tongue to the wine, my fingers to the velvety smooth places, and also the gritty scarred places, and warming my heart by their fire. A book like this one transcends time. Thank you CM Burroughs for the reading at the Zell Visiting Writers Series and for sharing you courageous and unforgettable book of poetry.

To purchase your copy of the text, visit here. To learn more about this poet, who is also Assistant Professor of Poetry at Columbia College, visit her academic profile here.

the Poet in a recent photo from the Cave Canem Blog, accessed 27.10. 19.

Sources Consulted

Burroughs, CM. The Vital System: Poems. Tupelo Press, 2012.

Cesarti, Giuseppe.

Dhwty. “Diana and Actaeon: When an Innocent Encounter Turned Deadly.” Ancient Origins, Ancient Origins, 27 Jan. 2019,

Naim, Rania, “The 7+ Types Of Love You’ll Probably Experience In This Life,” 25 October 25 2019.

3 thoughts on “The Vital System

  1. chume2013

    This is a lovely and lively review, exactly the kind of full engagement the book deserves. Consider comparing it to another text or bringing a theoretical context to your review. Some of your praising sentences might be cut back a bit to showcase the content of the praise. For instance, this sentence could easily be cut: “In conclusion, this stunning book is one you will read and enjoy on so many levels.” For one, it’s not really your conclusion, and you say this so much more convincingly elsewhere. Looking forward to how you might integrate these ideas in a review of her more recent work; consider writing a second part to this when you’ve read the new book!


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