Carey Harrison reads Otis Kidwell Burger’s long ago lost sonnets

Otis Kidwell Burger

How loud the moons that night, and all around
The empty pastures, shorn of color, rang
Like silver cymbals with the sombre sound
Of moonlight, and small insect voices sang

Thus begins the eleventh poem in a cycle of 46 resplendent sonnets, written by Otis Kidwell Burger when she spent a summer in the Catskills 60 years ago. Now 94 and still writing poetry, the Greenwich Village resident recently rediscovered the sonnet manuscript in a drawer. 

Her daughter, Katherine Burger, is as an artist and writer who has worked for both the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony and the Maverick Music Festival. Katherine sent Otis’s sonnets to Woodstock actor and writer Carey Harrison, an editor for Dr. Cicero Books, which has published the poems in a volume entitled Love is a Season, with illustrations by Katherine. Harrison will read the entire cycle aloud on Saturday, May 26, at 3 p.m. at the Mescal Hornbeck Community Center in Woodstock.

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“When I first read them, I nearly fell out of my chair,” said Harrison in his sonorous, English-accented voice, perfect for delivering sonnets. As an English professor at Brooklyn College, he explained, “I teach the sonnet as a genre — not just a form, but a genre of its own. I had never come across poems so masterful dedicated to a landscape, to animals as reflections of love.”

In her introduction to the book, as powerfully and sensitively written as the sonnets themselves, Otis explains the context of the poems. In 1957, when she was in her mid-thirties, her husband dropped her and their children off at a house in Prattsville, where they were to spend the summer with the family of the man who had inherited the house. Otis and her children were the first to arrive and spent two days without electricity or phone, which had to be turned on. When the owner arrived one evening, without warning, and brought the house to life, the affection that was kindled between the two of them joined the wonders of nature as the subjects of the sonnets Otis had already begun to write.

Although the poems use the word “love” to refer to their relationship, Katherine said it never went beyond a deep friendship. Both Otis and her friend were married, in relationships she acknowledges as fraying, but they were also responsible parents, spending the summer with their children. Otis’s marriage lasted another 20 years. 

“We can see it as an imaginary love affair,” said Harrison. “Almost like writing a novel, she gave the sonnets a novelistic quality, but there no sense it’s a romance necessarily.”

“They were in a magical place,” Katherine said. “The trees, the animals, the house where his family had lived for several generations, all triggered something in her. He was a nature lover, leaning up against the cows at night. We were at the crest of a mountain with huge meadows, a forest in the back, a farm down the road. It was gorgeous, timeless place. Every night, she wrote two sonnets, although she had never written sonnets before and never did again.”

 Otis had published children’s books, book reviews, poems in The New Yorker, but her literary agent was unable to place the sonnets, and she put them away. On a recent search through her overstuffed desk, an assistant found the only copy of the typewritten sonnets. 

Having majored in zoology and Elizabethan poetry at Cornell, Otis gravitated easily toward nature imagery and Shakespearean meter. “The premise is so much more powerful than love requited or unrequited,” said Harrison. “There’s a point at which she says, ‘Heaven will not forgive me for this passion, but the natural world will forgive me. The animals and the place understand me.’ I’ve never seen this story told.”

The sonnets sweep us directly into Otis’s mystical bond with the natural world, then plunge us into the equally sublime power of a love fated to live purely in the present. The man’s arrival is an awakening, his summer-long presence a bliss that resists attachment, his departure a grief. Throughout the cycle, the flight of birds, the cries of frogs, the moods of weather reflect and magnify the course of love.

Rhyme patterns, alliterations, imagery flowing past the ends of lines and quatrains, make it difficult to quote anything less than an entire sonnet. Each one contains an idea that, true to classical form, hits a punchline in the final couplet but takes its force from the preceding quatrains.

“The rigor of the form is so specific,” said Katherine. “The sonnets made me see another side of her — the serious writer. I picture her caught up in this imaginal realm spinning in her head, suspending her everyday reality. And she was so disciplined, writing every night, probably with a glass in her hand. Cinzano vermouth was her drink at the time. We usually spent summers in places with no running water or electricity. We used Cinzano bottles as hot water bottles.”

Katherine recalls her childhood as literary and fanciful. Otis and her husband, Knox Burger, an editor and later a literary agent, were part of the Greenwich Village literary scene, hanging out with Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut. Otis read King Arthur tales aloud to the children and then encouraged them to make castles with turrets of toilet paper rolls. At a summer house in Connecticut, where they had an icebox instead of a refrigerator, an iceman came to the door and was taken aback when greeted by children wearing tinfoil armor.    

These days, Otis writes whimsical poems such as those recently published in a book entitled Cats, Love and Other Surprises (Nirala Publications, 2017). Though now nearly blind, she still writes on a typewriter, and then her amanuensis keyboards the work into a computer. Otis is also an artist, working in ceramics and papier-mâché. Her sculptures will be on sale in the artists’ shop at the Kleinert/James Arts Center. She expects to come to Woodstock to hear the reading of her sonnets.

Carey Harrison will read Otis Kidwell Burger’s sonnet cycle Love is a Season on Saturday, May 26, at 3 p.m. at the Mescal Hornbeck Community Center, 56 Rock City Road, Woodstock. Copies of the book will be on sale at the reading or can be purchased at the Golden Notebook bookstore.

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