by Gerard Smyth
from Dublin Review of Books, Spring 2012
In an essay on Wallace Stevens, the poet and novelist and winner of this year’s TS Eliot award John Burnside wrote that “poetry is, quite literally, the song of the earth ... is how we imagine the world and, as such, is not merely a political but an ecological and ontological activity ... What makes Stevens’s poetry distinctive in this respect, however, is that his vision is always of a world in its most diverse, complex and subtle state: nobody knows better than Stevens that there is as much darkness in the song of the earth as there is light, as much grief as there is joy.”
That evaluation of Steven’s sensibilities as a poet could, in equal measure, apply to Burnside himself. There is something of Stevens in his powers of perception, his sense of the darkness that pits itself against the light in seasons, landscapes, the human psyche, as well as, of course, his belief in the poem as an occasion of philosophical musing, of questioning and confronting the existential challenges of the age: mystic theology and science are never far away in the background to a Burnside poem. As a nature poet he is a thinker in tune with twenty-first century ecological anxieties.
Like Stevens, too, he is unafraid of repetitiousness – themes and obsessions recur through different sequences and collections; early poems are echoed in later ones. However, Burnside’s language is very much his own, neither inherited nor borrowed from Stevens or anyone else, so therefore powered by its own burnished authority and endowed with stylistic originality.
It is almost twenty five years since he published his first book of poems, The Hoop, a collection that signalled the arrival of a distinctive, and remarkably mature and fully formed, voice in British poetry, one working as much in the imaginative territory of the spirit as the temporal world of the flesh.
Black Cat Bone adds further to the momentum he has created with his own “songs of the earth”. Often described as a poet on a quest for “the numinous ... the mysterious always just beyond our reach” Burnside’s cites as one of his favourite quotes Charles Wright’s remark that “the other world is here, just under our fingertips”. He presents us with an unsettling sense of mysterious – perhaps menacing – presences, of a world intertwined with the mythical, the Gothic.
But who is this other waiting in the dark,
the one she listens for?
No ordinary man but Brother Bones
calling to her in whispers from a place
she’s known since childhood ...
(“Oh No, Not My Baby”)
It would be wrong, however, to think of him as a poet whose eye is only and ever to the crack where light gets in. He is also a poet of the “commonplace domain”, as he refers to it, in “Ulay, Glos” (a poem from The Myth of the Twin).
From his earliest work, there has been a spell-like quality to the alchemy of thought and language in a Burnside poem. In the intervening years and subsequent volumes, he has sustained those qualities that marked him out, developing his range and scope throughout an astonishingly prolific output that now, with Black Cat Bone, reaches a twelfth collection (there are also seven equally compelling works of fiction and two of the most extraordinary memoirs from a contemporary literary figure).
Those feelings of mystery, the sense in a Burnside poem of some other world beyond ours being close at hand, seem to come from an intensity, a “rapture breaking on the mind”, as Stanley Kunitz once described it in reference to his own creative process.
In Black Cat Bone, these characteristics are as present as ever, and as powerfully; as is the perfectly achieved, and recognisable, Burnside arrangement of detail and thought, in poem after poem:
I’ve been on this road since morning,
the land gone from green through grey
to a soft, damp bronze
around me till, a mile or so from home,
I come to the usual
gloaming: an almost white
against the almost black
of gorse and may.
Burnside’s drives produce stunning poetic results.
Here again he draws on nature, the seasons and landscape, with eerie effect; semblances are never what they seem: “ ... a skim / of swallows over the road like the last few / pages of a 50s story book / where someone is walking home / to the everafter.” That plainness of diction grounds the poem, or gives a recognisable shape to its metaphysical concepts; the feat is to make the extraordinary ordinary.
Burnside’s poems inhabit places at the shifting and hazy intersection between the visible and invisible worlds, a zone where the dead “have more friends than the living”. Their aura of quiet fragility and gentleness can be deceiving; there is no demurral when it comes to the violence in nature – “the harsh, the bloody, the seemingly cruel” as he calls it in a recent interview (and there is a lot of the world’s neverending undertow of violence in his poems). If it is not children crushing “a beetle or cranefly in the dust / feeling the snuff of it bleed / through the grain of their fingers”, it is a moment of ghastly epiphany, as when in graphic language the poet-narrator tells us
I found a bobcat dying in the road
and stole the tattered remnant
of its soul.
I hunkered down and leaned into its last
sour breath, to drink it in:
I tasted blood and catpiss and a thread
of spirit in my throat, like gasoline.
His mastery of the extended narrative, of the tableau poem, has been impressive in the evolution of his work – and is demonstrated in this collection in the imaginative detail and artistry of the long opening poem, “The Fair Chase”, with its typical scenes of strangeness and evanescence:
... halfway through the white of afternoon
I slipped away, unwanted or unnoticed,
Taking a road less-travelled through fields and yards
of stunted brassicas and rotting tyres,
strangers in overalls or leather aprons.
The poet’s erudition and intellectual alertness everywhere seep into the poems: botany, the classics, the Bible, the blues of Charlie Patton; he has too an instinctive affinity with art and artists (Pieter Bruegel is a presiding presence here, as Edvard Munch was in a previous collection, The Asylum Dance).
As ever, titles are significant, the shadow over the poem: “The Soul as Thought Experiment”, “Notes Towards an Ending”, “Disappointment”, “Amnesia”, “Insomnia in Southern Illinois”, “Loved and Lost”.
At times rueful, sometimes wistful, John Burnside is a twenty-first century Romantic, a poet
... waiting for the miracle
I used to find in early black and white
where everyone looks like us and ends up
happy, in a place they’re learning
never to take
Black Cat Bone shows the extent to which Burnside now occupies a realm of his own in contemporary British poetry. The integrity of his vision, and his commitment to it, have always been admirable, as has the ongoing and flowing continuity of his work from book to book. After winning the Eliot prize, Burnside wrote that poetry “is central to our culture, and that it is capable of being the most powerful and transformative of the arts”. The claim is justified by Black Cat Bone where, once again, Burnside’s own contention that “poetry works where maps are useless” is borne out by these exceptional works.Dublin Review of Books
Editors: Maurice Earls, Edna O'Doherty