Jorie Graham: finding my way through her poetry

This will be the first of four posts in which I attempt to come to some understanding of the poetry of Jorie Graham, a poet whose work is entirely new to me. Versions of these posts will also appear on the website of Oxford Stanza II.

jorie graham

Jorie Graham 1

Jorie Graham is a poet I had barely heard of until I came across her most recent collection Fast in Blackwell’s bookshop. I discovered that she was an eminent American poet who has succeeded to the as Roylston Chair of Rhetoric at Harvard, formerly occupied by Seamus Heaney. However, reactions to her poetry are mixed. Apparently , Heaney did not care for it and she has been described as one of the most overrated writers in America, although these criticisms have the familiar ring of objections to the new, the difficult or the avant-garde.


Graham has said: “I do not see my work as difficult, or even experimental. I think it is pretty straightforward – although, as with any artist’s work, you might need to be acquainted with their body of work to have learned their vocabulary, as it were.”[1] My first glance at Fast had shown me that I needed to get to grips with the poet’s ‘vocabulary’. Nevertheless, she has written a lot and I had to ask myself was my trawl through two volumes of selected poems worthwhile. The back-cover blurb for the first of these, The Dream of the Unified Field, speaks of “ a poetry which brings into tense equilibrium science, philosophy and history. Graham’s is a new kind of narrative, offering open forms which are full of possibility.” This seemed to be a language that I recognised from my study of Charles Olson and Robert Duncan. Moreover the title has a similar epic reach; unified field theory according to my lay understanding is the physicist’s as yet unrealised search for a theory of everything, a sort of ur-theory which will accommodate all the different and often contradictory theories about the forces and nature of our universe. This desire to get everything in, philosophy, history, science through the medium of one consciousness is reminiscent of Olson’s Maximus Poems, a project so grandiose that, at least in my opinion, it eventually collapsed and fell apart. Einstein failed in the pursuit of a unified field and Graham’s title acknowledges that it is unrealisable. However, there is a constant tension in the poems between the acknowledgement of the separateness and disjunction of different aspects of the phenomenal world and the subjective desire to make connections.


Many commentators have written about this tension between ideal and real, subjectivity and the existence of an external natural world evident in her poetry. Dan Chiasson argues that “Poets tend to graduate from the particular to the abstract, moving from observable reality toward its clandestine laws: from daffodils to solitude, from waves and minutes to Time. Graham works in the opposite direction, moving down a steep slope from abstraction to concrete experience.”[2] This comment might be equally applicable to the trajectory of Graham’s work as a whole. Her more recent collections, for example in Never and Sea Change are increasingly concerned with existential challenge, not only for humanity but for the planet, which takes the theme of subjectivity in a new direction.


The earlier poems are filled with sharply observed natural detail, but characteristically these are included in a discourse which operates at many different levels, switching from the tangible to the philosophical and emotional in a way which is like a development from the insights of mixing up sense impressions through synaesthesia or an extension of metaphor to a point where it is impossible to distinguish vehicle and tenor. For example, in “ Self-Portrait as the Gesture Between Them [Adam and Eve]” she writes “ a wind moving round all sides, a wind shaking the points of view out like the last bits of rain….” This part of the poem is evidently set in Eden before the Fall and we are uncertain whether this is a real or metaphorical wind; it becomes metaphorical as it shakes points of view but we are brought back to the real by the simile which seems to refer back to the previous section, 6: “Every now and then a quick rain for no reason”. Nevertheless, the use of a concrete simile seems to imply that the wind’s actions are not natural, but ideal. ‘Self-Portrait’ is a title which appears in several other poems in the selection from The End of Beauty, including ‘Self-Portrait as Apollo and Daphne’ and Self-Portrait as Hurry and Delay’ [Penelope at her Loom]’. It would seem that the poet is using core myths to explore her own psyche or states of consciousness, although at the same time she is, perhaps inevitably, reinterpreting the myths she has chosen to engage with. Thus, the Adam and Eve poem is a feminist representation of the ‘fortunate fall’.[3] Adam and Eve are represented as becalmed in the Garden of Eden: “But what else could they have done, these two, sick of beginning.” It is only through error, through abandoning perfection, that there can be development or a way forward: “liking that error, a feeling of being capable because an error”; “that error, …that filial form, that break from perfection” enables the new, “ the stranger [who] appears in the clearing.”


Jorie Graham has said in another interview: “I am not the only, or best, reader of my own work, let alone new work, and I don’t want to oversimplify it.”[4] This step–aside from the personal “I” is typical of Graham’s project, but it means that the reader, and especially the new reader, must strike out on their own paths across the writer’s field, hoping that the ground will prove solid beneath them. I propose to look at a couple of poems from the earlier collections, namely “The Dream of the Unified Field” from Materialism and “End” from PLACE.; I will go on to consider two poems from the most recent collection, Fast.


We may guess that “The Dream of the Unified Field” is perceived to be significant by the poet as it is also the title of her first major Selected Poems. It gains its power and its effect through a progressive form which moves through a repetitions or overlayering of words and images which set off synaptic but not necessarily enduring connections. The poem has been much discussed and I have leant on previous analysis to create my own reading.. There are seven sections in the poem, the first of which is set in a ‘here and now’ where the poet appears to be recording an experience as it occurs, taking a leotard to her daughter in the middle of a snowstorm. This device, which is typical of Graham’s work, already distorts reality as the poem is always written retrospectively. This is acknowledged through the use of the past tense, ‘I watched’, “I looked up’ but set against tenseless verbs, ‘Praise this. Praise that. Flash a glance up’, which might or might not be imperatives as well as an abundance of present participles, ‘embellishing’, ‘flourishing’, ‘going’. The grammatical uneasiness becomes an overt exploration of time towards the end of the section:


scribed with the present. As if it really

were possible to exist, and exist, never to be pulled back

in, given and given never to be received. The music

of the footfalls doesn’t stop, doesn’t

mean. Here are your things, I said.


Not only does this effectively evoke the ‘out-of-time’ sensation of walking through a snowstorm, it also creates the sense of moments continuing to exist in the space-time continuum, while the individual subject is returned to her own reality by an end point and a definitive past tense: “I said.” Although at one level this poem presents a mother-daughter relationship, reflected in the frequent first and second person pronouns: “black lycra leotard balled into my pocket,/ your tiny dream in it, my left hand on it or in it/ to keep/warm”, already the poet is reflecting on her own relationship to her environment: “Me in it/and yet/ moving easily through it”. She is both part of the natural world and the observing subjective eye/I.


The second section continues the narrative as the speaker begins the journey home, when she encounters a mass of starlings gathering in a tree. Again, the poet uses past tense but makes the moment seem immediate through the deictic use of ‘these’ in “these days” and through recurrent present participles: “bothering, lifting, bothering”, “sprouting”, “filling”; in the second part of the section, the verbs move into the present tense as the moment is uncoupled from its place in the narrative timeline: “the leaves of this wet black tree at the heart of the storm-shiny-/river through limbs, back onto the limbs, scatter, blow away, scatter, recollect”. I take “river” to be used as a verb here, intensifying a ramifying metaphor where the starlings have become the leaves of the bare oak tree. The vividly realized description of physical experience segues into a metaphysical exploration, ”Foliage of the word’s waiting.” The poet returns to the actual but imputes significance to it: “Of blackness redisappearing into/downdrafts of snow. Of indifference. Of indifferent/reappearings.” The poet suggests that nature is indifferent to her, though “indifferent’ also reinforces the notion of sameness and repetition. As if intimidated by this “indifference” the poet moves from description and reflection back to direct address, the dialogue of her daughter:

I think of you

Back of me now in the bright house of

your friend


This refuge in the human underlines that the phenomena of the actual world are apart from our subjective experience and that we cannot properly account for them.   The last line of the section seems to represent the dilemma or dialectic that Graham is engaged in:


I watch the head explode then recollect, explode, recollect.


She simultaneously acknowledges that the phenomenal world cannot be contained in the subjective experience while creating metaphors and associations which are inevitably subjective. The violence of the fragmenting explosion is set against the ambiguity of “recollect’ which may equal “come together again”, or which may be a reference to the operation of subjective memory.


Sections 3 & 4 concern a crow which is individuated amongst the starlings: “One syllable – one – inside the screeching and the skittering”. The crow is seen as an entity, its singularity emphasized by the repetition of “one” and the adjective “single” yet it is also recognised as belonging to the pattern of repetition. Then through associative jumps which I don’t quite follow the voice of the crow becomes a voice in the head which may be the head of the tree, the head of the crow or the head of the poet, but is also the poet’s pocket, empty of leotard but full of her hand and fingers “terrified inhabitants.” She watches her daughter dance although the daughter cannot see her through the dark window, an image which in section 5 will become Madame Sakaroff’s mirror. Why the terror? Is it no more than the parent’s fear for the future of the child, born out of greater knowledge of the present and the past? In section 4 the poet details the crow, explores its variety of blackness, attempting to describe it objectively, even scientifically “the chest in which an eye-sized heart now beats” but is forced again to recognise how artifice imposes on reality: “ one ink-streak on the early evening snowlit scene – / See the gesture of the painter”.


Madame Sakaroff was apparently Graham’s dancing teacher and apparently a Russian émigrée but it is not entirely clear how much of this scene is fictional, how much autobiographical. It centres on the confrontation between the dancer and her image in the mirror as witnessed by the unseen eight-year-old poet and presented through the gothic imagery of childhood terror, reinforced by the memory of the crow in the previous section:


I watched the two of them,

black and black, in the gigantic light,

glide at each other, heads raised, necks long –

me wanting to cry out – where were the others? – wasn’t it late?

the two of her like huge black hands –


The reflection of the dancer’s face and mirror face are “like a meaning” but at the end of the section, the writer declares there is “no signal in it, no information”. Again the poet struggles with the human desire to read meaning into experience, made especially acute by the wish to protect a child:


what should I know

to save you that I do not know, hands on this windowpane? –



If Section 4 was black, Section 6 returns to white, the white of sleep, storm, snow, cloud, immensity. The opposition between inside and outside continues:

“The storm: I close my eyes and,/ standing in it, try to make it mine. An inside/thing.” Perhaps wrongly, I think the poet is referring to the writing of the poem “gripping down to form” which becomes “ a splinter colony, new world, possession”, the imposition of form on observed phenomena being compared to the imposition of government and order on a colonised territory. The poet suddenly visualises herself and her location in the dimensions of space and history, “ my body, my tiny piece of/ the century” in a way which seems distinctively American, “vast/white sleeping geography” and connects to the final section which seems to be taken from the records of a conquistador (identified by other commentators with Columbus). The break between the final two sections comes mid sentence at the beginning of what appears to be a long quotation of a ship making landfall and contact with American Indian women, “one who was young and pretty” and may be an echo or a type of the poet’s daughter. The quotation is also set in a snowstorm and it also contains the sense of contiguous worlds, as well as referring to the economic basis of conquest: “there was/gold/ in that land” –


This section reminds me of the John Smith passages in Olson’s Maximus Poems and I am not quite sure why it is there, except that it develops the notion of colonisation and possession in the previous section and that it develops Graham’s preoccupation with the ‘other’ which or who we cannot know, but nevertheless seek to possess and control “The Admiral ordered her clothed”.

The presiding theme in this poem as in much of Graham’s work is the impossibility of reconciling subjective experience with the independent reality of the external world, which she paradoxically acknowledges through a blatantly autobiographical, first-person approach.




[1] Interview with Sharon Blackie. Earthlines, August ,2012

[2] Dan Chiasson, “Beautiful Lies: The Poetry of Jorie Graham” New Yorker,March 30th, 2015

[3] See Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 12

[4] Interview with Sarah Howe, PRAC CRIT

Edition Eight – January 2017


Embroidered Icons

crying in the silicone wildernessDr Romola Parish is an astonishingly versatile character. She is a practising environmental lawyer, a poet, an archaeologist, an academic expert on the poetry of R.S. Thomas, and a committed Christian. She has just published two books, one the product of a six-month residency with the Oxfordshire Historic Landscape Characterisation Project, entitled Polygonia; the other, an astonishingly beautiful and moving series of meditations based on Christian icons which she has created through embroidery, Crying in the Silicone Wilderness. The icons work in a way similar to the Stations of the Cross, in that they provide images from the Christian story which enable reflection and meditation. They are accompanied by the artist’s own words, part explanation, part guidance and part her own thoughts and feelings; in addition, there are relevant quotations from the Old and New Testaments and original poems.  I found the icons so powerful and so beautiful that the poems seemed a little like afterthoughts.  Nevertheless, these poems, like those in Polygonia, are the products of a rigorous, occasionally playful, emotional intelligence.   Dr Parish is looking for venues to exhibit these wonderful embroideries so that they can realise their purpose as devotional objects.  I would love to see them displayed in an Oxford church or college; from seeing the illustrations in her book, I feel that they open spiritual pathways for believers and perhaps even more for the doubters. Oxfordfolio

Lost boy in search of self/selves: Jackself by Jacob Polley.

Jackself by Jacob Polley could be described as an elliptical and truncated Prelude for the 21st century. Like Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem, Jackself presents a childhood in Cumbria. However, as a product of post-modernity, this version of ‘the growth of a poet’s mind’ is allusive, eclectic and much less certain about the nature of self or individuality. A ‘Jack’ is a generic male, usually young, often inferior or ‘common’, sometimes bad – the knave. Polley builds his ‘Jackself’ from a multiplicity of selves, exploiting the many different jacks in English culture. There are two epigraphs at the beginning of the collection and it is significant that one of them is literary, a quotation from Gerard Manley Hopkins which gives the title its provenance: ‘Soul, self; come, poor Jackself…’, whilst the second is anonymous and not only points to the mythic past of romance and the supernatural but also indicates the importance of popular or folk culture. Many have commented on the strong narrative of the collection but equally significant is its drive towards mythopoeia. Jackself must discover himself by elaborating a backstory rooted in place and language. It is as though he cannot be unless he is somehow indigenous, an interesting counteraction to multiculturalism and diversity which can also be identified in works such as Jez Butterworth’s play, Jerusalem, and, a century earlier in Rudyard Kipling’s, Puck of Pook’s Hill. While Butterworth and Kipling are overtly concerned with national identity and ‘Englishness’, whereas Polley is seemingly more caught up in the quest for personal selfhood, all three draw comfort and resonance from the language of literary and folk culture and all three are very firmly set in a specific location: Cumbria for Polley, Wiltshire for Butterworth and Sussex for Kipling. All three writers refer to the natural environment and topographical features as if to assert their own heritage.


Polley’s first poem creates a legend for the building of the farmhouse, Lamanby; ‘the lovely lofts of Lamanby’ are twice referred to in the collection, a phrase which gestures towards the heritage of Anglo-Saxon alliterative poetry, something which he does again in the first line of ‘Jackself’s Boast’: “I am hero, a harrower of hellish meres.” Lamanby is Jackself’s home or omphalos and so it is given a pedigree reaching back into prehistory based on the cycles of felling, use and regeneration of the timbers which built it. In the final cycle the timber regenerates once more and it is made to seem that the living trees form the walls of Lamanby:

weren’t felled but walled in, roofed

over, giving span

to a farmhouse, hanging

a hall from their outstretch…


So Jackself is born into and part of a natural habitat, a first claim on belongingness. In ‘The Lofts’ he lays claim to past Selves, perhaps his historic and evolutionary antecedents whose skeletons are said to be found in the attics:

Aself, Oxself and coracle-ribbed, ape-armed Selfself

his ochred bones trophied in a flaky niche in the clay wall


The second poem may be his birth, but it is made up of a collection of echoes, literary and folk, all the way from Sylvia Plath ‘the green atchoo’ to proverb, ‘All the doors must have their way/and every break of day its day’ an aural allusion to ‘every dog must have its day’. Sound is more important than sense for the preliterate Jackself in a poem made up of disparate sense impressions presented in four strongly rhythmical and heavily rhymed stanzas.


As the poems continue, Jack comes to consciousness and “now he knows/ his own mind” (‘Applejack’) he also grows to fear what is not him, the dark and ‘Lucy Fur, who/ glints at night/where he trembles.’ About a third of the way through, he comes up more decisively against the other in the person of Jeremy Wren who, in terms of the narrative, is an older boy who is apparently tougher and less innocent than Jack. However, Jeremy appears to have his own problems with an abusive father who “welted [him]/buckle-first” and a deep unhappiness which is explored in ‘It’: “there’s hair in my bowel and doubt/in my groin and my head’s full of/animal glue’’. In ‘Jack Frost’ Jackself in the persona of Jack Frost is patterning windows and surfaces with frost. He meets Jeremy engaged in a similar task, but unusually, Jeremy is the one who is seeking solace:

Wren’s weeping the lucid mask that’s welding to his cheekbones

Help me, he says, keep everything just as it is.


Women feature very little in these poems, either as mothers or girlfriends, while fathers are cruel or insensitive: ‘Mugginshere’ seems to have little understanding of his son’s difficulties at school. Instead we are presented with a world which looks back to saga or Anglo-Saxon epic. Following the apparent suicide of Jeremy Wren, Jackself finds himself on a quest, like Beowulf, to slay a monster, the Misery, a monster whose “dead/ face he’s sure is Jeremy Wren’s”. However, there is something curiously reflexive about this quest. When Jackself slays the monster, he seems also to be confronting himself:

But skin me, Jackself says,

and you’d see I’m

monster underneath


and he rips out the Misery’s

throat with his teeth


Polley appropriates not only the imagery and machinery of folk tale and epic but also the traditional sounds and patterns of oral poetry, nursery rhyme and colloquial language. He makes raids on the subconscious through the kind of word play nonsense you might expect from very young children, beguiling his reader with magical sounds and echoes which have an appeal beyond rationality. However, although the playfulness with language releases both poet and reader it is tightly controlled within the overall psychodrama of the book. Jeremy Wren is something of a Peter Pan figure, representing escape, freedom, the power of the imagination, but at the same time, he is a lost boy, who is unable or does not want to grow up. Jackself has to vanquish or assimilate Jeremy Wren in order to move forward into consciousness and if not adulthood, at least boyhood.There are two school poems which reflect this passage from the unreflecting child to the social being. In the first, ‘Lessons’ Jackself is unsocialised, the class dunce, “pig-slow, a starey calf”, still completely a part of Nature:

his mind a corner

of beehives

his fingers a box of matches

his nose the afternoon rain

his ears yesterday

his eyes green eyes

his tongue an earwig

before it hatches

In ‘The Desk’ which comes after Jeremy Wren has died, Jackself seems to have accommodated to the loss of his friend who nevertheless remains a presence. Jackself has acquired some of Jeremy Wren’s common sense and dry wit. When Jeremy protests that Jackself has taken his”rubber,[his]calculator, his shatterproof ruler and [his] spider/ in a matchbox” Jackself retorts “what were you going to do,/… spend your death/catching up on your maths homework”.

From this point till the end Jackself learns to accept the loss of Jeremy Wren, who increasingly seems to represent himself or an aspect of himself. In ‘Tithe’ the haunting seems to have stopped but is missed:




dead now                                 his due

However, in the last poem, ‘Jack O’Bedlam’ it is unclear who is Jack and who is Jeremy:

Now I can make him do my naughty

his eyes will not betray me

they’re just like mine

but minus nine

times twelve to the power of maybe


Jackself becomes ‘Doublejack’ as he struggles between the world of reality and imagination. He decides to “stay inside/which is really no choice at all” but Wren appears “on the window ledge/come out/come out he cries/poor Jackself swears/there’s no one there/ and fills in both his eyes.” However, he succumbs to the temptation and the sequence ends with him

dancing down the lonning

at the bottom of the world

the only proviso being that he must “be back before he’s old”.


Jackself operates at many levels. It can be the story of a childhood friendship of two boys, one of whom commits suicide, leaving the other to deal with grief and growing up on his own. It could also be the story of a child growing into boyhood, moving away from his place of origin and his possibly imaginary friend into the wider social world. It is a drama of the passage from innocence into experience framed as a quest and set in the landscape of rural Cumbria. It is an assertion of identity or identities based on a long-shared language, history and natural environment. It is a story which seeks to mythologise itself and which draws its mythopoeic elements from very traditional literary and folk sources. It seems in some ways to be the very opposite of modernity and the world in which most of us find ourselves, yet its power comes from the counterweight of its intense and pristine localism.





John Burnside

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.

Finishing off and starting out

I am about to retire from teaching so I thought I would give myself something to do by starting a poetry blog. I write poetry and I enjoy reading poetry but reading poetry properly is hard work. I have always found that to engage fully with a poet’s work I have needed to write about it.  I enjoy writing and I want to keep my brain in working order so I will be posting reviews of poetry I have enjoyed and reflections on poetry of the present and past. I don’t anticipate doing much until I have actually retired at the end of the summer, but getting to grips with the mechanics of blogging is a necessary start. If you should stumble across this site, apologies for the amateurish nature of it and the likely blunders.