John Burnside. The Good Neighbour. Jonathon Cape, £9.00
I first came to Burnside’s work a few years ago when a girl I knew lent me a book of his; the book was ‘Swimming In the Flood’, a book which I haven’t seen since and which, perhaps because of this, has acquired a roseate glow in my memory. The volumes of his work which I’ve read since have not struck me in quite the way that that one did, yet he retains a voice entirely distinctive, entirely his own. The only comparisons I would venture to make in an attempt to describe his delicious verbal invention are Dylan Thomas and Laurie Lee. The poetry is trance-like and tangible, memorable in its individual notations: “the fat mud fretted with bird-prints / light slurred with oil / and slicked reflections”.
For those familiar with his work (and his readership is considerable for a living poet) this new book is continuous of his main preoccupations – those of the myth of the twin, “the other”, the notion of the doppelganger in the reflection of Narcissus in the pool; also in the seizure and recognition of the noun itself:
‘we are here so you can name
the world you know
one object at a time’
Formally Burnside tends to be quite free, even slipshod at times. There are certain poems in this book which seem – as in Geoffrey Hill’s Canaan – to have a fractured structure. I don’t have to finger-count syllables to hear that the iambic pentameter is prevalent in his work, but often he seems, almost perversely, to break it up into different lines or even stanzas. At best, it is a means of disregarding punctuation, of varying rhythms by enjambment, of modulating tonal effects by measure of breath, a method of ellipsis which contributes to the feeling of disorientation, but the extent of its precise effect and value is difficult to estimate. It may be instinctual and largely indefinable, and would need to be explored at greater length elsewhere.
Here is an extract from a poem called ‘Annunciation With Zero Point Field’, in which he describes the improbable, the “angel that cannot exist”:
‘…the word in its mouth like a plum that has almost ripened,
the sound it will make when it speaks
like falling rain;
but this is the probable world, this is ourselves,
and the one thing we know for sure is that everything comes
by chance, and is half-unwilling,
memory, love, the angel who cannot announce
the fact that, the moment it speaks,
it will fade to nothing.’
His poems are conspiracies against the secular world, cryptic intimations that remind us, through a process of forensic detection, that nature is ancient and sacred, its encoded signals of bloom and fragrance operating as mysterious hieroglyphs of the spirit.
There is a shamanistic menagerie of birds and beasts, like the Palaeolithic cave-paintings at Lascaux, half real and half imagined, emblematic of our deepest and most inscrutable instincts.
Every poem is a magical exhortation of ancestry, ceremonious and medicinal, reminding us that there is still something tribal in the community, still something benign and blessed in the notion of an earthly habitation. The title of the collection, ‘The Good Neighbour’, comes from Robert Frost’s famous poem ‘Mending Wall’, which closes with the line “Good fences make good neighbours”, a line typical of Frost in its crafty and paradoxical wisdom. The book is halved into sections, the first, called ‘Here’, is concerned with the comforting notion of home but also of the “dread of belonging”; the second half, ‘There’, concerned with the gravitational tug of unfamiliar territory.
Burnside has a hallucinatory perception of nature, not apprehended as dark and daemonic as in Lawrence, but as auspicious and spacious and light. A spiritus mundus animates the physical world as a will o’ the wisp, an elusive light which those with visionary insight are gifted to see. Yet Burnside makes no claim to be elect; it is more that he regards the details that most of us disregard. Each poem acts as both an invocation and an amulet, whereby the unresting spirits are exorcized by welcoming them in. The implication is that the everyday world is also a shadowland of spirits, a threshold to a luminous domain.
His concern, or one of his concerns, is indeed spiritual, but spiritual in an earthly, pagan context. He is haunted by the possibilities of the Christian faith he once gave credence to, but now no longer believes in. Yet what informs and enables the poems no less are – as he has said himself – “botanical texts and drawings, fairy stories, Celtic and Romance literature.”
“There’s something in the world we cannot name,” he intimates, and there is in this idea of the elemental mysteries something of the reason and relief we feel when opening one of his books, as though we voiced our expectation of the author in his own words:
‘I think you have something to tell
that I’d want to believe
no matter how improbable it seemed’
Jim Newcombe, 2005