A won­der­ful world of words

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - John Burn­side Jonathan Cape, £10 Re­view by Hay­den Mur­phy John Burn­side will be at Glas­gow book fes­ti­val Aye Write! on Sun­day March 19 at 6.30pm. The Her­ald and Sun­day Her­ald are the event’s me­dia part­ners

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

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