Sam Reads John Burnside
My review of John Burnside’s latest collection, “Gift Songs”, set to appear in the next issue of Matchbox poetry magazine. Enjoy.
There is an uncanny beauty to the words of John Burnside’s tenth collection. Gift Songs blushes with intricate sensations that ascribe with smart accuracy the difficult feelings we experience around uncertain boundaries. It is on the lines that are not seen or felt that much of this collection is centred on: the seeping of heat from a fingertip pressed to a pane of glass, or the unmarked boundary between country and city.
Burnside handles the paradox of a focal point characterised by its own lack of focus with unnerving precision. Experiences we have not put words to are here described just as we have felt them, as are the haphazard jumbles of senses and sights that carry together all thoughts: “A murmur that comes through the wind, / a hand’s-breadth, a wingspan.” His accuracy strikes a real chord with the parts of the mind that are glossed over, or brushed aside in uncertainty. Winding, flickering sentences bind these poems together in inviting streams of language that feel precious, as a gift.
The idea of poems existing as gifts is reminiscent of sonnets swapped conspiratorially between lovers in Elizabethan times, but in Burnside’s writing there is no such playful romance – the relationship examined here is between faith and the world, and is treated, for the most part, with the kind of hinting presence that such large questions demand. There is a continual awareness bound to every line that something larger is going on, and that the fractured thoughts are accumulating into something larger and beautiful that cannot quite be seen – something captured in the collection’s last few lines: “Drawn by instinct to the place / where bodies formed, great waves of sound and light / becoming fingers, eyelids, shoulders, hair.”
But there is a touch of the superficial to all of this. Setting out to examine “the idea of a free church,” and “explorations of time and space,” Burnside casts his net unexpectedly wide for what are often such closely-written poems, and as a result, the poetry does not match up to the subject matter. We are given landscapes, the night, and the senses, or we are given churches, dogma and remembered scriptures. Like oil and water, the two materials of language and content might be mixed together, but are never quite as one, with each persisting in distracting from the other throughout most of the collection.
This lack of cohesion is matched by the collection’s layout, and how it sets down its content: a shade too mechanical for what sets out to be so organic. The book is divided into three distinct segments: “Gift Songs,” “Four Quartets,” and “Responses to Augustine of Hippo.” These clear divides, whilst hardly cohesive in themselves, serve also to disrupt the winding interconnectivity of the poems – all free verse, lucid and sprawling across the pages in squiggles of enjambment. They are exciting; unique. But after ninety pages of foreboding locations, hinting religious imagery, and shivers of italicised French, the interest begins to wane. What might have been a broad cluster of diverse, thought-provoking verse becomes lethargic, repetitive and ultimately too vague to make any kind of sharply-observed point: the feeling of not quite being able to put your finger on something, that Burnside captures with such mastery on every page, becomes the feeling you are left with after reaching the last few pages, along with a nagging suspicion that it is trying a bit too hard to be a bit too clever.
Though painfully beautiful and well-observed, Gift Songs loses itself somewhere in its own haziness, and lacks the substance to support its lofty ambitions. Admirable, but ultimately unfulfilling.