Chase Burke’s stunning chapbook Lecture (Paper Nautilus Press) is filled with tumbledown geniuses. Armor is a recurrent image, and penmanship hurts. These narrators are, as you perhaps guessed, vulnerable in the way a good teacher might be. Okay, good may be the wrong word. These are the swept-up sort of lecturers, their pockets filled with the torn-out pages of books, steering their students through the morass of living, and oftentimes getting lost in the borderlands between passion and frustration. Burke’s characters are magnificently insistent. “I believe our reckoning has already been filmed,” says the narrator of “Film School” to his class of young filmmakers. “It’s every film. There’s a pattern somewhere in the reels, a Fibonacci sequence spiraling out from every unspooled roll.” There’s a fearlessness to the ideas tucked in each of these stories. Nothing is too abstract for us, because—Lecture is here to remind us—just like those reels, we’re all fragile, all spiraling, and all awaiting projection.
One delight of Lecture is how, intermittently, the stories teach you how to read them. “I am more than fertilizer for another earth’s populace,” says the narrator of “Icebox.” “Your DNA, slowed to stopping, is still there, still the same, still you, whether you were a coward or a child.” Suddenly, we’ve moved from seeing these pieces as the pleadings of characters who, from the isolation of their own intelligence, thirst for connection, to attempts at permanence, hammerings in the tablet, prayers to the god of endings. These instructive twists happen again and again, the chapbook itself like a conductor who turns the scores upside down and tells the orchestra to play it again.
Throughout Lecture, I kept thinking of Kenneth Koch’s Hotel Lambosa, a book of prose poems masquerading as stories that dot the bohemian streets, cafes, and museums of 1960s Paris, Italy, Greece, and North Africa (think pavestone streets, slanting sunlight, grapes). Lecture is not masquerading, but it is evocative of Koch’s hand: ever-reaching to us and asking, Are you the one who will come with me? The locales, though only occasionally European, are similar too: libraries, museums, and, of course, lecture halls. But most notably, Burke’s characters are fast-moving, unworried about our own footspeed, gadding toward the unknown in quick steps. “We both know this building is a maze,” says the narrator of “Museum” as he ping-pongs between exhibits, “this whole city a puzzle, this entire country a safe without a key, and what’s the point of having a safe if you can’t get inside of it? What is worth protecting if it’s inaccessible? An idea? A way of life? A memory?”
Like lectures, these stories are at times challenging, monologic, and self-consciously delivered from voices who don’t have enough time to unpack the entirety of their points. We can quickly see the wisdom of Burke’s choices: the brevity of flash is a perfect dramatic form for characters with much to say and little time to say it. Each story wriggles within its confines like a bound and sunken magician. “I only know there’s no center to the narrative, just a hole, a space where I wouldn’t have looked for logic,” says the narrator of “Alternate Ending,” who is in the spirals of grief for his lost brother. Presto, the story says, having broken the surface and ready to bow. We onlookers, in our wonderment, feel ourselves rise, never certain how—exactly—he pulled off the trick.
Lecture, by Chase Burke. Paper Nautilus, 2019 Debut Series Co-Winner. 33 pages. $8.00, paper.
Nick Almeida’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Pleiades, Mid-American Review, American Literary Review, The Southeast Review, and elsewhere. His chapbook, Masterplans, is the grand prize winner of The Masters Review’s inaugural Chapbook Contest in Fiction, selected by judge Steve Almond, and will be available in the fall of 2021. He is a PhD candidate at University of Houston, where he’s at work on a novel.