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.

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