Poetry Chronicle 10: John Burnside
John Burnside was born in 1955, and now lives in Fife. There is a marked divergence in theme and tone between his poetry and his prose work. He allows poetry sequences to emerge organically in his imagination, without much conscious intervention. The Hoop (1988) was followed by Common Knowledge (1991), Feast Days (1992, winner of the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize), The Myth of the Twin (1994), Swimming in the Flood (1995), A Normal Skin (1999), and The Asylum Dance (2000). Elvis Presley, an iconic figure to the young John Burnside, gives his name to the title of the short story collection Burning Elvis (2000). His novels, in contrast to his poetry, are the result of a controlled process and they are altogether darker. The Dumb House (1997) is a sinister tale of children being used in a crazy experiment on language. Questions concerning the nature of masculinity have inspired The Mercy Boys (1999), centring on the hard-drinking Scottish male, and The Locust Room (2001), an unnerving but ultimately tender take on male sexuality. The Asylum Dance won the 2001 Whitbread Poetry Award.
Gift Songs by John Burnside (Jonathan Cape, 2007) is his latest collection. This piece recently appeared in Poetry Review to whom I am thankful as always.
‘No one invents an absence’ writes John Burnside. For Burnside, presence is everything: presence is invention, presence is perception. Some natural thing – a capercaillie, a meadowlark – can ‘centre and stake the imagination’ (in Seamus Heaney’s phrase); but Burnside also knows that natural selection yields unstable versions as well as subversions of life – much as a poet drafts multiple metaphors for one aspect of reality, and why most poems that are ever written must ultimately fail in time.
The presences of nature have traditionally offered Burnside subject, theme, and even modus operandi. In this new book, those presences now also present him with adaptive forms, perceptions and language. For example, some of the sequential poetic forms and patternings in this book are like nothing you will have read before; while Burnside’s poetic sentences fleer over line after line with an astonishing lope of syntax and skid of reference.
Unpredictability and unreliability are in fact the most natural of characteristics, in matter as well as nature, and Burnside shows as much in the conditional philosophy of many of these poems:
Everything maps this world
and what world there is
is the current sum
of all our navigation:
networks of panic and longing,
road maps in gorse,
the river at twilight
vanishing into the sway
of cattle and bees.
There is a world’s weight of being in that line break of ‘…is / is…’ from the second to third lines. The critic Jonathan Bate argued in the fine ecopoetic text The Song of the Earth that, ‘poets let being be by speaking it’ (echoing Archibald MacLeish’s assertion that a poem should not mean but be); and Bate went on to say, ‘our world, our home, is not earth but language’. What might we find by looking and listening to that language? What is the nature of a dwelling made of those particles called words? It can be argued that poetry is one of the crucibles, along with research science, in which language crackles and transmutes, and Burnside’s work certainly crackles. The fastest evolving species is language—poetry sets temporary dwellings on that shifting edge. I believe the main aim of Gift Songs is to attempt get to the heart of this relentlessly fertile reality, and find consolation in its caprice. In another life, Burnside should have been a particle physicist at CERN (the mind’s destination of choice for many poets). Like particles on their trajectory from their particle-ghosts, these poems often show the ‘I’ travelling out from the self, or as he puts it: from the dark
self or not-self)
— something that comes
but something between the two
like the shimmering line
where one form defines another
yet fails to end…
Burnside is also one of the best artists of the process of human memory I have read. His perceptual world is one where we know ‘…what it is we are losing, moment by moment, / in how the names perpetuate the myth / of all they have replaced…’; and that we can do nothing about it but to watch and learn, and make language that, perhaps, collapses less easily than apparent fact and perceptible reality. John Burnside never lies to us about any of this necessarily tattery business. It is why we trust him as a poet, and why his reliability shines as a virtue.
Accretive and adaptable, poetry is as natural an art form as memory; and Burnside is now one of our most natural and adaptable poets – accretive too for this is his tenth book, but quite his most ambitious. Previously, his poetry appeared to evolve scrupulously, yet you could identify the species of his poetry by its scrutiny of the numinous, hear it by the searching and usually calm and calming voice. Burnside’s reliability as a poet could be “comforting” in some ways: never doctrinaire, never working with a palpable design on his readers; his close perceptions beguiled. Gift Songs alters any general critical perception of Burnside; it signals a dramatic change in the ecology of his poetry, maybe some quality we could liken to what he calls in one poem a ‘scavenger warmth / emerging from the cold’. Ecopoetics could have been developed with John Burnside in mind; and the poet continues to supply wonderfully provisional answers within the ecology of his poems – provisional because his poems never pretend to an exact science; wonderful because neither is nature exact, nor for that matter is language.