the guardian Fri 04 September 2009
"At once peremptory and forlorn", Derek Mahon found the Uccello painting from which John Burnside's new collection takes its name. Burnside takes a more directly visceral line. To him, the forest is a place of initiation and death, where men "bent to the juddering kill" slip their knives in their prey "like butter, or silk, until the heart is still". For a title poem it strikes a gory note, but the next poem along, "À bout de souffle", with its opening references to ether, phosphorescence and the shape of breath, reminds us that Burnside's primal scenes are as often up in the air as under his pulse.
Burnside has long been among the most painterly of contemporary poets. Paul Muldoon has been described as someone who would rhyme "cat" and "dog", but not even he rhymes darkness and light as relentlessly as Burnside; seldom can a writer have been so addicted to the chiaroscuro of "not quite night". As backdrops go, it is ideal for Burnside's abiding themes: ghosts, the burden of the past and the shadow of death. He is much given to setting his ghostly goings-on in versions of the past continuous ("It seems they might still be there / if we found the place"), but no one stays still for long in these jittery poems. "No one is truly absent," he writes in "An Essay Concerning Time", yet "nothing is ever the same as the shape it resembles." When "Treatise on the Veil" ends by conjuring "something that used to be yours / in the not yet given", the warping of the space-time continuum has reached Back to the Future levels of confusion.
Burnside likes nothing better than ending his poems with a series of metaphoric substitutions: it is the principle of metamorphosis that matters as much as the form in which we eventually come to rest. He will often seem to have his finger on a trip-switch between assertion and cancellation ("gathering, then forgetting"), or, just as frequently, between the obscure particular and the vaguely paradisal, as when a walk down "the back road, out by the loch" triggers a vision of rapture ("go into the light / nobly-born / go into the light"). At moments like this Burnside risks trading in Teflon mystique, hurrying his forms into the epiphanic dark or empyrean rather than tarrying in the mere world of appearances long enough for us to get a good look at them. There is a suspicion of spilt religion, the frisson of mysticism without the inconvenience of any accompanying dogma. When Burnside does philosophise about his ghostly presences the result can be pseudo-statement: "Only the dead are communal", he claims, which suggests that he hasn't visited any cathedrals or football grounds lately.
Many of these poems obey a logic of scattering and loss, which works in creative tension with the demands of narrative momentum. One of a number of poems in the book titled "Amor Vincit Omnia" begins:
The one thing that no one would choose
and it's back, like a knife at a wedding:
child's play, a half mile of rail tracks
and four steps into the woods, the abandoned shoes
laid out for keeps
in a chamber of ground frost and ticking.
The "knife at a wedding" instantly raises questions: is it "like" the "one thing" in the first line in the sense of having come back (from slicing the cake?), or of being something else "no one would choose"? It's hard to tell, but the poem has already moved on, leading us down a trail of atmospheric menace where asking too many awkward questions may not be encouraged (I am presuming "ticking" here is the fabric, rather than what a clock does).
Someone Burnside resembles more than a little is the American poet Charles Wright, and like Wright he has a fondness for the sequence. "In Memoriam" is an elegy that tropes the pain of loss with a series of yet more transformations. The real presence is always elsewhere ("your body is a gloss / on something else") or hiding in the "perfect lull / between lost and found". Burnside is fond of the words "almost" and "perhaps", but in "Saint Hubert and the Deer" the volume's accumulated bleakness elicits an unequivocal cry of distress: "Nothing is less attractive than the heart, / but we have to admire / its utter disdain for comfort." Death, he goes on, is the heart's "only precision".
The poem ends with a deer on "the far edge of vision", but not the prey the hunter has "sought for years / and cannot bear to master". The implication is that while falling half in love with easeful death might lead to that bleak "precision", we are right to pull back from the brink, and that it is more than indecision and weakness that causes Burnside to spend so much time in his twilight zones.
Poems such as "Trappist", "The Visitor" and "An Essay Concerning Time" add up to a moving and humane portrait of grief, and this is never less than poetry of a high order of seriousness. But while Burnside's gift for crepuscular epiphany is not in doubt, there are other forms of precision than death, and licensing himself to explore them may require a change of direction from the moody intensities of The Hunt in the Forest.
David Wheatley edited Samuel Beckett's Selected Poems 1930-1989 (Faber).