Still Life with Feeding Snake John Burnside, Cape Poetry, 2017
John Burnside is a poet whose religious sensibility reflects his Catholic upbringing. His poems are often mysterious; however, it is not always clear if this mystery is an enrichment or an obfuscation. Burnside pursues the liminal, that which is almost but not quite perceived by the senses or the intellect. The blurb on this latest volume declares that the poems ‘illuminate transient experience with a profound clarity and a charged, sensual beauty.’ This is perhaps to understate what Burnside is doing: clarity is not always what he is after and the sensuality is not always beautiful, but sometimes terrible. As in his prose, there is much which is intransigently crossgrained.
Nevertheless, the title poem of the collection is a brilliant exploration of different ways of being in the world, which achieves its power by painfully probing failures in engagement and emotion. The epigraph is a quotation from Goethe, which advocates detached observation as a method of understanding the world. The male protagonist of the poem focuses on the phrase neither desiring nor disliking as he pursues his art. He is presented as an intellectual ‘far away from the given world’, a formalist: ‘Now what he wanted/ was texture: how it reconciles the mind/ with gravity’ and also an aesthete: ‘He was one of those men who feel shamed/when they find something ugly’. His artistic quest has demanded a detachment and repression of emotion that cuts him off from felt experience and has damaged his marriage. The artist’s wife comes to tell him that ‘in the crawl space/under his feet/some kind of snake/is swallowing some kind of bird’ interrupting his meticulous focus on inanimate detail, the ‘blues and greys’ of a ‘pair of hand-made fruit bowls’ set out on a white cloth. His wife forces him to notice the messiness of the animate world which he has literally overlooked yet which is part of the reality on which he takes his stand. He recognises ‘how disengaged he had become/ from any world’ in which his wife could figure. The concept of the painting, the clinical observation and recording of the relationship between objects, collapses as he goes in search of his wife and finds her observing and engaging with the suffering of the dying bird. Thus the protagonist moves from the focus on detached observation in the first part of the Goethe quotation to a felt understanding of the second part: If we know how to relate this knowledge to ourselves in our actions, we earn the right to be called intelligent. He progresses from an intellectual awareness of pain and evil, ‘ a dark/ immensity of bruise and appetite’ to a ‘willing’ engagement with ‘all the forms of suffering’ which acknowledges but is involved in and has compassion for every ‘tender thing’ which falls prey to the forces of darkness and the brutality of nature.
This poem is more accessible than many in the book, perhaps because it attempts to confront an introspection which elsewhere seems almost solipsistic and generates many arcane or private references. For example, the second poem ‘Abiding Memories of Christian Zeal’ must be read in the context of the rest of the book, and indeed in the context of the poet’s developing body of work. There is a concern with the figure of the mother, with blueness and with space and cosmonauts, all of which occur in this poem but are developed elsewhere. The second line refers to ‘Mother as Script and Ideal’ which becomes the title of a poem later in the collection. The notion of script seems to include the idea of genetic inheritance as well as destiny while the ideal is developed as a consciously idealised image of the mother who is always there ‘in lanternglow/ a light that makes this world believable’. It is only with second thoughts that we recognise that ‘lanternglow’ isn’t very illuminating and understand the poem may be acknowledging the falseness of the memory. This poem also features the notion of the lost boy, the brother who died, or alternatively, the life not lived: ‘someone, not myself,/goes missing, while I lie down in the warm’. The poem ends with a peculiar version of bedtime story reading where the speaker declares himself kin to the Snow Queen or the Lady of the Lake, both representations of coldness or death.
There is a thread of malice running through the collection, which occasionally seems personal, as when the speaker describes how he always brought his mother forget-me-nots on Mother’s Day, when he knew her preference was for flowers that were red, ‘fleshy, red/ begonias, the strangeness of the colour purple/ when it puts forth veins and hair’. There may be all sorts of psychosexual undertones in this fairly revolting image but the poem presents again a bond with a mother which is partly resented, partly acknowledged as genetic destiny, ‘the cold/exemplum/in each blueprint of the heart.’ The text is so dense, the allusions so interwoven and polysemous that the reader is bewildered and the writer escapes without committing himself. Here, for example, the cold blueprint suggests again the story of The Snow Queen and the frozen emotions of the little boy, Kay, in the Hans Christian Andersen story, but blueprint also suggests the genetic code by which inheritance is passed from parent to child, while blueness suggests ‘blue baby syndrome’ which, we are told, resulted in the death of the missing brother and almost killed the persona.
In the poem following this one, we read: ‘I am the boy who stole the sodium/and dropped a single grain/into the fish tank.’ I had to look this up on You Tube; believe me, it would not have benefited the fish. The writer continues ‘I never thought of this/as malice’ adding that ‘anything intact’ … ‘is inadmissible.’ Is this resentment of a relationship with a dead brother that was never possible or is it a view that the transitory nature of life means that nothing good can ever last and ‘anything can burrow to the heart/ or chill the soul’? Incidentally, this poem, ‘Hendrick Avercamp; A Standing Man Watching a Skating Boy’, lapses into blank verse, as do others in the collection. I’m not sure how purposeful this is, or whether it is simply the default metre of English poetry speaking through Burnside.
For me, the poems about mothers, brothers and cosmonauts are the most provocative and disturbing. Burnside’s work is cumulative, an accretion of myth and image, so that each poem must be read in the light of the others in the collection and this book must be read against the books which have preceded it. As I suggested at the beginning, his is a religious sensibility which has perhaps substituted ecology for God; however, in doing so he is assembling a theology and iconic system as elaborate as that of the vestments and dogmas of the faith he has abjured.