Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

"Selected Poems" by John Burnside (Cape, 2006)

In small doses I find his poems seductive. En masse they leech into each other, smudge like the fog and nostalgia he so often summons.

I like his imagery in small doses too. The 2nd poem, "Suburbs", doesn't use line-breaks. It has several similes - more, and more various, than in later poems. I prefer the 2nd one quoted here to the others, though the 5th has surprise value.

  • "an elaborate birdsong streams through the wet scent of roses, like a new form of music evolving out of water"
  • "radios talking to empty rooms, the way they do when the director is aiming for suspense in a fifties murder film"
  • "the suburb always has an abstracted quality, like a sentence learned by heart and repeated till the words are finally magical"
  • "The day-long, low-level action beneath the surface intensifies, like bad wood warping under the veneer"
  • "Thick black liquors remain for years under the rims of jamjars and lemonade bottles, like fairy-tale recipes for invisibility or love"

"Swimming in the flood" has more imagery that's based on observation - "he remembered the rescue boat,// the chickens at the prow, his neighbour's pig,/ the woman beside him, clutching a silver frame ... Later, he would see her on the screen,// trying to smile, as they lifted her on to the dock,// and he'd notice the frame again, baroque and absurd,// and empty, like the faces of the drowned"

Images of Presence/Absence are shared by several poems in the space of a few early pages (and these are "selected" poems!). Diminishing returns soon set in.

  • "Nevertheless, something is missing: an absence that is only temporarily filled by the red of a post van in the lane, or the sound of footsteps" ("Suburbs")
  • "its people cannot evade the thought, like the thought which sometimes comes in dreams, that nothing is solid at all" ("Suburbs")
  • "the kitchen is empty, except for an absence where something has just occupied my place" ("Suburbs")
  • "we are sometimes/ haunted by the space/ we fill, or by the forms// we might have known/ before the names" ("Septuagesmia")
  • "a blankness along the canal/ that waits to be filled" ("The Solitary in Autumn")

It's a theme that continues throughout the book.

  • here we have nothing to go on
                 or nothing more
    than light and fog
              a shiver in the wind
    or how the sky can empty all at once
    when something like music comes
               or rather
    something like the gap between a sound
    and silence
  • At times the ghosts are almost visible
    between our trellises and folding chairs:
    just as old harbours sometimes reappear
    through fog or rain, or market towns dissolve
    to gift us with a dusk of shining air,
    the garden we destroyed is almost here,
    nothing but hints and traces, nothing known,
    but something I have wanted all along
  • the stranger who wakes in the dark from a fetid dream
    of ditches and milt;
    and how we go on digging when it seems
    there's nothing else to find - or nothing more
    than ghosts and unanswered prayers

It's easy to believe that all the personae are Burnside. It's a pre-internet world, often a pre-industrial world. Sometimes he seems to be yearning for a pre-language world. Street-wise he ain't. You could call the style timeless I suppose.

The painter cares for nothing but the light:
the patterns he knows

He knows about angels, dreams and haunting, about data that's registered by only one sense - sounds and smells whose source can't be seen, or

dreams I can't forget
and never quite recall
a glimmer of scent on his hands
that he couldn't quite place.

"Penitence" has a theme that poets commonly tackle - the narrator, driving, collides with a deer. I think other poems have tackled it better. I don't think much of "Natalie". In "Fields" there's

Be quick when you switch on the light
and you'll see the dark
was how my father put it:
the otherlife of things
           before a look
immerses them

William James used the same image - "The attempt at introspective analysis in these cases is in fact like seizing a spinning top to catch its motion, or trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks."

There are passages which I'm tempted to treat as explanation by Burnside about his symbolism

  • Animals and Self
    They say, if you dream an animal, it means

    'the self' - that mess of memory and fear
    that wants, remembers, understands, denies,

    and even now, we sometimes wake from dreams
    of moving from room to room, with scent on our hands

    and a slickness of musk and fur
    on our sleep-washed skins,

    though what I sense in this, and could tell
    is not the continuity we understand

    as self, but life, beyond the life we live
    on purpose: one broad presence that proceeds

    by craft and guesswork,
    shadowing our love.
  • Self
    At times I think what makes us who we are
    is neither kinship nor our given states
    but something lost between the world we own
    and what we dream about behind the names
  • Angels
    When they speak about angels in books,
    I think what they mean is this sudden

    arrival at somewhere else
    through a rift in the fabric,

    this glimpse of the absence that forms
    between two lives
  • Real
    The real unmakes itself in every hand

    that reaches out to touch and grasps thin air:
    that newborn stranger hurrying away

    to other facts, unhindered by desire
    this wisp of smoke
               this song
                    this tilt of bells

"Ports" uses staggered lines, the first poem in the book that does.

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