Looking at the cover of Aaron Burch’s How to Take Yourself Apart, How to Make Yourself Anew (Pank 2010), it’s hard to avoid thinking of the relation between bodies and space. Text in three lines — the title, and the author’s name — occupies a section of the cover, along with ample views of the background. The rest is taken up by an illustration, itself anatomical: part of a skeleton, the ribs and hips and spine. Taking yourself apart, making yourself anew: the book hasn’t yet been opened and already the visceral associations have begun.
Once it has been opened — a different sort of spine cracked — there’s a subtitle: “notes and instructions from/for a father.” And then an index, listing three sections, the one in the middle captioned “Tales;” the other two fitting somewhere between instructions and observations. Aaron Burch has arrangement on his mind. Biology and lineage and anatomy all fill the pages of this collection, some sparsely, some nearly bursting. And yet classifying this book is next to impossible: the ever-popular “prose poems”? Aphorisms? This is a book concerned with taxonomies, yet it defies that sort of classification for itself. Which, one suspects, is the point.
The first section, “How To Take Yourself Apart: Instructions,” reads like a series of brief ruminations on fatherhood. The moment of overlap in its subtitle — that gulf between “from” and “for” — emerges here, hovering over the eleven short pieces it encompasses. They read like concentrated meditations on facets of life — one begins with a meditation on the phrase “shotgun wedding” before shifting its focus towards hunting, then towards watching sports, before ending with a sentence containing a single word: “Pull.” These are physical pieces where the lines between human and animal, father and son, are easily blurred. Those transitions continue in the third section, “How to Make Yourself Anew: A Bestiary.” Fathers and sons recur here. The fourth word in “Caladrius,” which opens this section, is “Icarus,” and that relationship — fathers and sons and rising and descending — continues throughout, a motif in which Burch finds ample variations.
In the center of the book is “How To Fold Paper Cranes: Tales,” its most traditional section. But even within these nine stories, Burch’s fluid and often visceral imagery is on display. Here, birds show up on odd places, their appearances and connotations increasingly sinister. “Molting” opens with the line “My hands are turning into birds, Penny said,” and travels from there to a gulf between theory and reality, ending with an image that’s literally wrenching. The stories range from surreal to kitchen-sink in their realism: in the four sentences of “Cheap Seats,” Burch is able to convey a wealth of information about one particular relationship.
Throughout How to Take Yourself Apart, How to Make Yourself Anew, one encounters pain and love, transitions and transformations, settings contemporary and classical. Its relationships are complex, sometimes loving, sometimes violent, oftentimes both. And, given the subtitle and the implications of the title, it’s ultimately no surprise that it ends, almost inevitably, with the moment of birth.