Wednesday, August 16, 2006

John Burnside, Part 2

Selected Poems, by John Burnside, Jonathan Cape, 2006.

By any measure, Burnside’s Selected offers a severely limited selection indeed: drawn from eight earlier volumes, it runs only 112 pages. Of the twenty-three poems in Asylum Dance, winner of the 2000 Whitbread Poetry Award, only six (the largest number for any one volume) find inclusion here. The book carries no introduction. Hence, though we might readily assume Burnside himself made the selection, we cannot positively know how poems were ruled in or out. Interestingly however, while the table of contents clearly indicates a chronological presentation of a handful of poems from each of eight separate volumes, the body of Selected Poems shows no such separations: the book is designed and printed to appear as, and to read as, a continuous single volume.

If one determines to read any book of poems straight through, attentive to its ordering, then one must start at the start. And it makes sense to presume that the first several poems in a book strike the opening notes or themes or voices. (Whether such a presumption is proved accurate becomes one of the ongoing questions reading addresses.)

Burnside’s Selected Poems begins with these three words: “Like me, you…,” and with them, this book asserts a directly personal voice that asks for and assumes an immediate human commonality. “Like me, you sometimes waken / early in the dark / thinking you have driven miles / through inward country”. And thus, the first full stanza also claims a territory – that metaphorical, dream haunted “inward country.”

Interestingly, the second poem seems no poem at all. It’s called “Suburbs,” and it is presented in 14 prose sections (or paragraphs). If this were music, the notes of the first poem would be a brief bit of Mozart; the notes for the second, a slow movement with full orchestra. Or, to mix metaphors, in its first two poems, Burnside’s Selected claims a large territory. As different as they are in form and length, the first two poems share a common interest in what is real and what is not:

“The suburb has its own patterns: arrangements of bottles on front steps and scraped ice on driveways, enactments of chores and duties, conversations at gates and hedges, sweeping and binding movements, arcane calculations of cost and distance. All this activity is intended to make it appear real – a commonplace – but its people cannot evade the thought, like the though which sometimes comes in dreams, that nothing is solid at all, and the suburb is no more substantial than a mirage in a blizzard, or the shimmering waves off an exit road where spilled petrol evaporates in the sun.” (p. 3)

And eventually, the suburbs implies a place

“where everything is implied: city, warehouse district, night stop, woods emerging from mists, as if newly-created, like those Japanese paper flowers which unfold in water, empty back roads at night where, momentarily, a soughing of wings passes close in the dark, followed by the tug of silence, the feel of grain fields shifting under the wind, a lamp in a window beyond, where someone has sat up all night, drinking tea, remembering something like this.” (p. 5)

With “Suburbs” we see confirmed one characteristic element of Burnside’s poems. Even when they echo William Carlos Williams, they give the sense of being allowed to make themselves, to follow a line of imagery and of thought until the process itself arrives at some satisfactory stopping point. Here, for example, is the poem that follows “Suburbs.” It’s called “Signal Stop, Near Horsley:”

Smoke in the woods
like someone walking in a silent film
beside the tracks.

A shape I recognize – not smoke, or not just smoke,
and not just snow on hazels
or fox-trails from the platform to the trees,

but winter, neither friend
nor stranger, like the girl I sometimes glimpse

at daybreak, near the crossing, in a dress
of sleet and berries, gazing at the train. (p. 7)

Though the form here shows some regularity, two stanzas of three lines followed by two stanzas of two lines, the regularity seems to result not from artifice determined in advance (as, for example, a sonnet might) but rather from a way of thinking that uses form to encourage itself forward.

In technical terms, the early poems in Burnside’s Selected face the challenge of how to mediate between the brevity of poems like the one quoted in full above and the large prose sprawl of “Suburbs.” Thematically, the Selected makes it clearest initial claim with the early poem “Halloween.” In it, the speaker confidently and directly recounts what has been necessary “as I come to define my place.” It’s a definition pursued not in church or school or home, but out of doors, in backyards, among “barn owls hunting in pairs along the hedge, / the smell of frost on the linen, the smell of leaves…

The village is over there, in a pool of bells,
and beyond that nothing,
or only the other versions of myself,
familiar and strange, and swaddled in their time
as I am, standing out beneath the moon
or stooping to a clutch of twigs and straw
to breathe a little life into the fire. (p. 11)

Perhaps what beguiles most in Burnside’s poems is their deft modulations of sounds, of consonants and vowels. The language itself carries richness and beauty, the word music of English. Here’s another example, the first stanza of “The Pit Town in Winter”: “Everything would vanish in the snow, / fox bones and knuckles of coal / and dolls left out in the gardens, / red-mouthed and nude” (p. 14). And the stanza is deft in one other way. While it affirms the vanishing of things, what it does is reveal them plainly.

As one reads farther into Burnside’s Selected Poems, one can see his growing mastery of a particular lyricism most immediately described by his use of sentences that carry themselves forward over many lines. Burnside often pairs this technique with another: he links lengthy individually numbered sections (each carrying its own title) underneath the entire poem’s overall title. Thus, the poem “Settlements” includes four numbered sections that run a total of seven pages. The result reads with the intensity of image and the pace one expects in a lyric poem, yet it also carries some of the reach of an essay. It’s demanding reading, but it’s also rewarding. Here is a fragment from the middle of section III, titled “Well”:

So when I turn to say, at times like this,
that something else is with us all along
I’m thinking of that woman in the town
who told me how she worked all afternoon,
she and her husband digging in the heat, bees
drifting back and forth through currant stands,
the sound of their breathing
meshed with the weave and spin
of swallows:
how, after an hour, they struck on an unexpected
flagstone of granite
and lifted the lid on a coal-black
circle of fresh spring water under the stone, … (p. 52)

In a way, the quoted lines above almost describe the reading process for a Burnside poem. It requires pleasant work (“digging in the heat, bees / drifting back and forth through currant stands”). Rewarding for itself, it can lead to discoveries entirely unexpected (“a coal-black / circle of fresh spring water…”).

* * *

In what is called the western tradition, questions of home – which are also always questions of identity – have vexed us at least since Eve and Adam were expelled. If that wasn’t bad enough, Galileo proved the Earth was not the center of the solar system, Darwin determined that evolution made everything from amoebae to human beings, and Einstein posited that the universe can be compared to a huge rubber sheet each planet weights down differently according to its gravity. Now there are rumors everything from basalt to a child’s tear is made of unimaginably tiny vibrating strings. In short, home gets harder and harder to figure. If to this we add the contemporary commonplace assumptions that each of us must, for our own happiness, choose our own occupation, belief system, ethics, place of residence, and relationship (if any) to our kin or ancestry, then perhaps it’s no surprise how much effort home asks of us in its construction. The times ask us to construct our own ad hoc myths (the alternative, one supposes, is to bob on the waves of entertainment and advertising).

One could argue that home – in all its making and unmaking, its deceptive calms and sudden storms – constitutes John Burnside’s essential interest in his Selected Poems. It’s a big subject – place, animals, people, the relationships they assert, the sense of something larger than ourselves as immediate as a view of ocean or sky, leavings and arrivals, the company of history, the company of neighbors, the observation of beauty, the daily “finding evidence of life in all this / driftwork…” (p. 89). Burnside’s Selected succeeds partly because he has learned ways to make poems that let in so much experience – either as he knows it firsthand or via his intelligent imagination. To read this book as a book is to watch technique grow and become surer, more supple, more attuned to the ambitions of the poem or the requirements of its material. By its end, the book moves deftly from long poems in numbered sections to single page poems, like “The Good Neighbor,” which read over and over as absolutely right in construction and deeply humane in sensibility.

Monday, August 14, 2006

A Note on Thomas Carlyle

Perhaps we’ve always given biography its own special niche – neither journalism, nor science, nor fiction, nor poetry, yet it borrows from all of these. And a good biography remains one of the best introductions to a writer heretofore unknown.

Once the “Sage of Chelsea” and considered by many of his contemporaries (including Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, Lord Tennyson, George Eliot, and Leslie Stephens, father of Virginia Woolf) a kind of exemplar of Victorian England, Thomas Carlyle certainly seems little read and less discussed now. The reasons aren’t difficult to figure. As presented in what reads as a thoroughly researched, eminently fair 1983 biography by Fred Kaplan, Carlyle’s wrestling with science and religion seems now almost commonplace, while his absolutist and patriarchal views of the roles of women and men seem archaic.

With regard to science and religion, Carlyle came to disbelieve any view of a personal God. He took from the profoundly religious convictions of his parents only an abidingly strong belief in work and the need to act virtuously, especially in matters of commitment. This partly explains his thirteen-year effort to complete a six-volume study of Frederick the Great despite the fact that he dreaded the writing itself and found his subject less than compelling. He was a writer: it was his duty to work as one. Somewhere there is a line between compulsion and commitment, virtue and simple obstinacy, but one wonders if Carlyle knew it.

Carlyle’s determination also allowed him to weather an episode that must rank as every writer’s horror story. Hard at work on what was quickly stretching to a three volume discussion and history of the French Revolution, Carlyle gave the manuscript of the first volume to his friend, John Stuart Mill, who was eager to read it and offer comment. Somehow, while it was in Mill’s custody, the manuscript was burned and destroyed (one story blames a zealous servant who mistook scattered pages on the floor for trash and used them to light the day’s fires). As might be imagined, Carlyle was blindsided by this loss. He had to rewrite the entire volume from memory, and he did.

As a husband, Carlyle demanded such devotion and such accommodation to his ambitions that he tended to ignore his wife, Jane, to the extent that she was frequently happier (as was he) when they were apart. He also viewed a woman’s role as one in support of her husband, and though he realized in some way that he was himself the cause of much of her distress (she was clearly a smart, capable woman who had, essentially, too little to do), he seemed ever unable to turn that recognition into any sort of effective action. As a result, Jane Carlyle’s real illnesses (migraines were likely one) were made worse by her own sense of frustration and lack of good work. Furthermore, they were both examples of such sexual repression that they could offer each other little in the way of physical intimacy or the common comforts of touch. Yet, as Caplan presents them, they were also clearly devoted to each other, in their own ways. When apart, they wrote each other almost daily.

As a writer, Carlyle's voice was emphatic and personal. Always convinced of the nobility and necessity of labor, Carlyle was also a strong advocate for the working poor, a class made ever larger with the spread of factories and mechanization. One of the bitternesses of his life was his failure to change British society for the better.

Oddly, despite being known as the “Sage of Chelsea,” Carlyle was a Scotsman who returned to his home landscape regularly. He loved London for the availability of books, books and literary company; he loved Scotland for its quiet and for his notion that such quiet calmed his nerves (though in effect, the isolation and lack of company for good talk tended to get on his nerves).

Is Fred Caplan’s biography a good introduction to Carlyle, a writer Emerson revered and visited at least twice? It is, if you come to it with some knowledge of Carlyle’s writings. Caplan summarizes them and their themes, but clearly they are not his main concern. This is not, really, a fully vivid intellectual biography. But it is a scholarly and humane account. It is, in fact, a good biography in that Caplan acts as a friend to his subject. The Thomas Carlyle that Caplan presents is a man of complexities, many of them unattractive. Caplan likes Carlyle well enough to justify his interest (and ours), yet Caplan’s also well aware of Carlyle’s limitations and blind spots, from which he does not shy. The biography thus manages a middle way, one that is often content to describe carefully and lets readers judge. What emerges is a complicated human being, one who told a friend that when he looked into the mirror on his eightieth birthday, he said to himself “What the devil then am I, at all, at all? After all these eighty years I know nothing about it” (524).

Thomas Carlyle: A Biography,
by Fred Kaplan,
Cornell University Press, 1983

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Introducing John Burnside -- part 1

Discussed Below:
A Lie About My Father
by John Burnside
published by Jonathan Cape, London, 2006

Note: This is the first of two projected essays on new books by the Scottish writer, John Burnside. The second essay (forthcoming) will discuss his Selected Poems, also published in 2006 by Jonathan Cape.

1. A Lie About My Father

Our parents are cursed or blessed always to be our parents.

As young children, we deify them without knowing it, and we can’t help it: they know the rules crucial to our survival. As we grow older, these gods start to shrink. They had mysterious lives before our arrival. They become old, fallible and old; they become themselves. We conclude they were never gods. But what, at last, should we understand from their foreign and intimately known lives? Such questions John Burnside pokes and prods, wrestles with and thinks hard about in his new memoir, A Lie About My Father. Because his books are not yet published in the U.S., Burnside’s work may not be well known here, which is a shame. Both his memoir and his Selected Poems were published in 2006 by Jonathan Cape. Together, they make for a useful and compelling introduction to a writer already well-established in his native U.K.

Burnside’s memoir focuses on his father, Tommy, because his presence (and occasional absence – he was hospitalized for several weeks once as a result of a bad fall) made such a difference to Burnside’s family life, first in the small, rural Scottish town of Cowdenbeath, later in Corby in Northamptonshire, England. The family included John’s younger sister, Margaret, and two ghost siblings who died at birth. Elizabeth would have been John’s older sister, and Andrew would have been the family’s youngest. But it’s Burnside’s father, Tommy, who commands the family center. He is a man who, Burnside learned only after his father’s death, invented his past out of the truth of being “left on a doorstep in West Fife in the late spring of 1926, by person or persons unknown” (18). As Burnside’s aunt explains, “Those were hard times…From what I heard, he was passed about quite a bit. Of course, there weren’t the social services they have now (20).” Thus, just about as soon as he could know anything at all, Tommy Burnside would have known that he was left by someone, even if he would never know by whom.

In a move this memoir frequently makes, Burnside tries to fill in a picture where none exists:

I can imagine it as I like: as a scene from a fairy tale, perhaps, the unknown baby left at the door of some unsuspecting innocents, who take him in and try, as well as they are able, to bring him up alongside their own children, only to tire of him after a while and pass him on… I could imagine it wet and windy, the blanket sodden, the child crying plaintively, weak with hunger and terrified. (21)

However, Burnside knows that his father “wouldn’t have liked that image.” So Burnside offers this instead:

…what I choose to imagine is a summer’s morning. It would have been sometime in late May or early June, so there is a slim chance it was one of those days when the sun comes up warm and, in a matter of minutes, burns off the dew on the privet hedges and the little drying greens between the houses… I try to imagine a pleasant day because, in this story, the baby on the doorstep of one of those coal town houses is my father. He is about to be discovered by one of the many foster-families he will know during his childhood, people with whom he will dwell for a few years before being passed along, in the years when the General Strike was turning into the Great Depression. (21)

Only having finished A Lie About My Father do readers understand the depth of generosity John Burnside brings to this scene of his father’s earliest childhood. For Tommy Burnside is, for much of this memoir, a cruel and terrifying presence in his son’s early years. Haunted not merely by the uncertainties of his own origins but also by the death of his first child, Tommy is a father who frequently tells his son that “he and my mother had had another child before me, that her name was Elizabeth, that she had died and that he wished she had lived, and I had died instead (32).”

Any child knows considerable firsthand experience of his or her parents. Burnside knew his father as a verbally abusive man quick to anger, a gambler and drinker, a laborer in construction who never managed an income sufficient for both his family and his habits. He was, as his son portrays him, insecure, unpredictable, desperate to hold onto the little social position he had, and resentful of the family his wife brought to their marriage even as he wished for and could not make his own version. He’d had an indifferent education, enlisted in the R.A.F., and returned home to a life of physical labor in construction. At home, his seething unpredictability, his drinking binges and disappearances, made for a level of pretense difficult enough for his wife to manage but worse for his children:

Everything stayed hidden. My father’s late-night parties, his occasional drunken rampages around the house… my mother’s attempts to hold things together, it was all secret – known by anybody who cared to know, but unacknowledged, like a priest’s feverish brightness around adolescent boys, or the beatings Mrs. Wilson endured on those Saturdays when Dunfermline lost at home. (97)

Burnside’s effort in this book is to relieve such pressure – to abandon the need to keep so many secrets of his own childhood; it is an effort to quit pretending, to quit lying.

Even as young as five or six, Burnside learned ways to escape the family tensions. Most often he did so by roaming the nearby woods, finding there a quiet predictability and sympathy with natural landscape. Soon, however, Tommy decided it was time to move. Burnside the memoirist understands this as his father’s way to exercise “the ‘geographical solution’, where a drinker leaves behind the bad memories and debts of a place where he has outlived his slender welcome, and moves on to pastures new” (123). This took them, briefly and abortively, to Birmingham, and later to Corby, a booming steel town whose blast furnaces “befouled the Northamptonshire countryside like some medieval plague town wrapped in a grey-gold cloud of smoke” (126). By this time, Burnside was a teenager who, at 14, saw his father “as just another bully, ready to make me pay for even the smallest mistake,” yet also a puzzle of a man who could “come home from the pub with his pockets full of change and buy every child playing in the square an ice cream from the van” (126). Of course, in a household perpetually on the edge of poverty, this meant that his own children would go without.

As one reads more and more of Burnside’s account, it becomes clear that each member of the family needed to pretend a common life based in small town Scotland’s generally accepted family roles. Burnside’s father needed to believe his drinking, gambling, and general abuse were commonplace, normal for the man of the family. His mother, Tess, needed to ignore her husband’s outrages and focus instead on what could be: tomorrow might be better. Such evasions at the private level were compounded by the prevalence of public falsehoods delivered via the then new medium of television:

A web of untruths about how we lived and what we consumed and what was considered useful knowledge constituted the very fabric of my world. I would sit in front of the TV, watching some politician or company CEO look straight to a camera and tell a barefaced, deliberate untruth, and the thought that almost always struck me was that these men had children of their own, that they were lying to them, as well as to the rest of us. It wasn’t just my father who was lying, it was everybody’s father. 179-80

A. L. Kennedy identifies this book as “a haunting, beautiful read,” and it is at once deeply engaging and frequently painful to note how readily Burnside’s father exercised his own brand of cruelty. Yet, Tom Burnside’s cruelty was also inspiration: “…I had my imagination. He was always saying that to me when I asked him a question he didn’t want to address: What do you think? Use your imagination.” (127-8). Interestingly enough, that is precisely what his son has done.

The latter third of Burnside’s narrative presents Burnside’s teens and twenties as years of avoidance of his father and his own past, years dominated by Burnside’s serious exploration of hallucinogenics and drugs of almost any kind. This time reads as a difficult, entirely interwoven combination of a son’s determination to escape and to explore; it seems at once self-destructive and self-inventive. Eventually, it all led to two hospitalizations, that latter of which was the more curative. All this time, Burnside’s visits to his father were rare; only through his sister’s persistence in her efforts to contact him did he learn of his father’s successive heart attacks, including the last one, which happened in a pub. Long before that, his mother had died.

While it is clear that A Lie About My Father works hard to be accurate to Burnside’s own recollections, it’s also very much John Burnside’s effort reconnect, fill in blank spots, and make meaningful connection with a past that was frequently a source of deep anger (Burnside details one plan he had devised, but did not act on, for killing his father). Though for years Burnside avoided home and his father, the memoirist son wants to experience, at some level, the solitary life his father lived in his later years:

On days off, he would still get up early, wash and shave, put on a blazer, clean trousers, his black polished shoes. Then he would go through the paper, seeing what he liked in that day’s racecard. Not that he put a bet on very often. I suppose he didn’t see much point. At around noon, he would go to the Hazel Tree for a few pints, then he would go home and watch television. He still had his ‘big seat’ where he sat, a foot or two from the screen, with his glasses perched on the end of his nose, the sound turned down as far as it would go without becoming completely inaudible. (227)

In fact, though A Lie About My Father tells a story of survival, what motivates it is John Burnside’s wish to make it something of use, a foundation. Burnside’s telling enacts a generosity and care that make for some of this book’s most arresting moments. Nowhere is this clearer than in Burnside’s consistent effort to make his father’s consciousness clear, so that it becomes something the adult son and the deceased father share. Here is part of Burnside’s effort to imagine his father’s basic grasp of the world:

Everything begins elsewhere, he knows that: dawn, Christmas, love, beauty, terror, the wind, the sky, the horizon, his own soul. It begins far in the woods, or out on some windy field by the sea. He wants to be there, not here: he wants to be where things begin, and he is so close, he is so near. Only – for reasons he cannot explain – something stands in his way, something he didn’t ask for. Reason, terror, unworthiness, he can’t even name it, it takes different guises every time, but it is always there, standing in his way, keeping him from his destiny. I’m sure my father felt these things – but these are my words, and this is the real lie about my father. (231).