A wonderful world of words
MEMORY is the spark that lights the fuse that ignites the poems in John Burnside’s 15th collection. Two years ago, in an interview for the Sunday Herald, the Dunfermline-born (1955) author quoted T.S. Eliot’s line “urge the mind to aftersight and foresight” as inspirational. Here, in Abiding Memories of Christian Zeal, Burnside writes of “The body as the sum of all nostalgias. /Empire of footfalls: Mother as Script and Ideal/–and love no chance event, no accidental/stir of wings, or blueprint spiked with hospice.”
There are two main themes. The first is prompted images, particles of perceptions. In a sequence of poems he marks the death of the three Soviet cosmonauts in the crew of Soyus 11, June 30th 1971: “bodies/dreamless in their cots, and marbled blue”. Phantom visitations reappear in Still Life with Lost Cosmonaut: “If I imagine you dead, there is no love/immense enough to bring you back to earth”. A creature lost “crimson in a space/that could not be more ample or precise”. Precise memories of a mother betrayed and vulnerable follow; “her hands/a labyrinth of mint and cinnamon, her book/the only book we have, the pages/ thumbstained, now with daisychain and lilac”.
Then there are responses to a closely observed empirical world, often occupied by painters/artists. Beautifully caught is Evening at Kuerners, 1970, by the American artist Andrew Wyeth: “an old man taking the stairs/on principle, his head/a gallery of pictures he has seen/and nothing besides, save the sound of a country/river, its name so musical it made him want to smile/ before he stopped, to lean against the wall/for just a second, stopped/and almost caught his breath before/it snagged on something else/and bled away.”
I recommend reading, and re-reading in tandem with that poem, Approaching Sixty. It draws on Yeats’s The Circus Animals’ Desertion: “(she) a girl in a dark blue dress/ striving to seem a comfortable kind/of scarecrow, not so blinded by desire/as makes the heart a nest of rag and bone/ and still, if she could see it,/not quite frail,/just one of those/ who knew what beauty is/ and lingers on the ache,/to stay alive.”
Burnside’s willingness and ability to explore and experiment make him essential reading. His title poem catches his specific gift on a wing. Goethe introduces it: “As soon as we consider a phenomenon in itself...we will in quiet attentiveness be able to form a clear concept of it, its parts, and its relations.” Narrative frames the poem. An artist is preparing to paint a still life. “The basic things/are hardest to perfect”. Then ‘She’ interrupts. She tells him “that, somewhere below,/ in the crawl space/ under his feet,/some kind of snake/was swallowing/some kind of bird.” Artistic purpose succumbs to human curiosity: “He was one of those men/who feel shamed/when they find something ugly.” He follows her “because she needed him to see”. He observes “the gaping jaw/ the sure light of the predatory eye,/ the snake itself”. He notes “the bird/half-gorged, in spasm, not quite/dead, perhaps, but not quite/ living, either.” Then “They stood a moment, silent, not together;/ and then without speaking,/she walked into the house,/ and he went back/ to gravity and light.”
They remain apart. “That soul is incomplete, the heart/forever pilgrim,/ this he did not doubt”. Later he searches for her, and finds her “in a garden chair”. He watches her “thinking of the bird,/or so it seemed,/lending it what it could not/ know or sense, but/willing, as its presence leached away, /some recognition of its suffering”. Captive astronauts in an inner space. Finally we contemplate with the artist “something darker/than the usual dust/makes good on every tender thing it finds”.
The book closes with a powerful threepart plea for acceptance of the migration of ideas, idealistic souls and abandoned humans. They preoccupy the writer in On a Line of George Seferis. Creativity is linked to anger. The line in the title reads “The houses I had they took away from me”. It opens with Illegals: “the little I know of houses/I learned from the rain”. Part 11, Night Songs From a Neighbouring Village, tells of the times when “ancient/ kinfolk on the threshold, suddenly/ articulate”. The final section is A History of Us: “the house awake behind us, like a witness: /deep rooms lined with books, a winding stair,/years of sleep and snow-lit conversations”.
Words lead as rhythms assemble the dictates of the mind. As memory becomes “the simple dynamo/we never thought to lose”.
Still Life With Feeding Snake is John Burnside’s 15th collection of poetry and closes with a powerful plea for acceptance of the migration of ideas, idealistic souls and abandoned humans