from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

'falling into understanding' (review of John Burnside's new poetry collection)

Oh, the treat of the new John Burnside collection (All One Breath, Cape 2014), newly arrived in my hands, alongside the Yann Tiersen album Les Retrouvailles, via the postman.

Waiting for the new Burnside is like waiting for your turn to jump on the stick-swing-on-the-rope above the deep opaque quarrypool.

I open it at random: 'Devotio Moderna', where he's speaking (as I read it, but one is never completely certain with this poet) of the possibility – actuality – of his own one-day death. 'It comes across as something / ancient, stark / caesura and the light that signs me out / from everything I know about this world.'

Of course, the book is dark (this is Burnside). Of course it's full of the usual paradox and ambiguity in and of being human – Burnside excels at that. 

I know that entering it will feel like falling off the rope-swing and being Pablo Neruda's 'dark stone that the river bears away'. And I give myself up to that; for you can't read Burnside with your fingers crossed and one foot on terra firma; or at least, I can't.

And, like me, his year-twin I believe, he is feeling his age: 'It must be a kind of weathering, not to regret / the life he's lived: the histories of smog // and birdsong, lost; the long / subjunctive of the missed and overlooked / lost in the local theatre of self- // as-prodigal' (that line-and-stanza-break!). ('1x, A New Anatomy').

This is Burnside's home territory: grief, terror ('coming loose / and drifting, like a leaf, / into the fire'); loss, death, the 'careful neglect' of 'unheimlich' love; what it means to live within and apart from the natural world; the regrets (or otherwise) about it all juxtaposed with insight, self-knowledge and, in the end, acceptance.

The poems deal, as always, with what might have been, as well as what was and arguably could be, or is; Burnside is always aware of the invisible lives lived on the other side of the tarnished mirror, the other side of the street, beyond the woods. And then there are the many faces of the self: '...a pause for the briefest / rehearsal of someone else / at the back of my mind'.

As always, he interweaves profound abstraction with the carefully-observed details of the world around him. I love this, from 'v11 Self Portrait as Picture Window':

First day of snow, the low sun
glinting on the gate post where a single
Teviot ewe is licking 
frost-melt from the bars, the other sheep
away in the lower field, the light on the crusted
meadowgrass that makes me think 
of unripe plums so local an event
it seems, for one long breath,
that time might stop...

I wonder if others have noticed how there's been a subtle transition in the way he uses quotes (from philosophy, psychology, Shakespeare, the Bible)? Before, it seemed to me, he'd borrow them, to punctuate, or illustrate, his thinking (I mean this as a felt sense, not a literal truth). Now, I'd say, he's 'in the lineage' – taking his place, so that the quotes are intertwined with his own words and his own words continue them unbroken. Standing in the stream.

But this poet is not a depressive; and nor do I find him a depressing read. For me, he has something of the wisdom of a Buddhist master: look, this is how it is, he says. There's this; and this. 

So he can finish 'Devotion Moderna' with the rich colours of life, of passion: 'and every window / strung with coloured lights, /crimson and gold, / to tell the lives of others'; or, as well or instead, '...falling, through slide after slide, / into understanding.' ('A Frost Fair')


  1. Beautifully put, Roselle. We have to read All One Breath though take little persuasion as we loved Black Cat Bone (and, as you know, I loved his 'Norwegian' novel, The Summer of Drowning. Have you read it yet, I wonder? Very, very disturbing but wonderful nevertheless: full of light and very dark.) But can't wait to get hold of this latest collection which you describe enticingly. He's so worthy of the TS Eliot prize. I also loved his memoir – Waking up in Toytown.
    Love, Miriam.

  2. You got your 1000 done, then, Miriam?! I got caught halfway through 'Drowning' - I intend to finish it, but was feeling too fragile at the time. Must read the memoir. Love, R

  3. 1225 to be precise! But it's quality not quantity we're after.

    M x

  4. Replies
    1. Just to practice :-) (easy!) and say – yes, you do need to be strong and a little detached to read 'Drowning'. I've read it twice and the second time was more disturbing. Would be so interested to hear what you think about it. Our friend, Paul – very bright English teacher – almost, I think, hit the nail on the head about the ending. One day, maybe, we'll talk about it.
      Mx about to novel – honest!


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