Tuesday, 29 September 2015

On "Pieter Brueghel: Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap, 1565" and "Notes Towards an Ending" (both 2011) by John Burnside (1955-)

The best poets create that marriage of order and chaos: from a vernacular of thousands, the poet chooses the words which mostly succinctly summarise complex feeling. Through correctly aligned words, the poet is able to conjure despair or euphoria; and John Burnside displays this talent wonderfully in Black Cat Bone. 

Burnside writes sparingly, tellingly. “Notes Towards an Ending” opens with ‘No more conversations. No more wedlock’, the two lines split by a caesura which not only ensures we comprehend the silence the former line implies, but also evokes authorial reticence in explaining why conversation has deceased. This is lent a delicate tangibility and vitality in ‘No more vein of perfume in a scarf’: ‘vein’ is a word choice which is simple, intrinsic, and vivid. With enviable verbal economy Burnside has implanted in our heads an image of a lone, taciturn man, clutching a scarf to his nose.

In the same poem, carefully chosen words with double meanings enhance the bitterness and desolation the cynical narrator feels. Words such as ‘haunt’ and ‘Reich’ are used in relatively natural contexts but have malevolent undertones. ‘Smudging’ is a detailed observation of peach-blossom on the glass yet bears the weight of a dying relationship on its back, just as ‘glimmer’ denotes the embers of a dying fire and contributes to our understanding of their love as something faint and unattainable.

“Pieter Brueghel: Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap, 1565” is a different beast; here the task of detailed delineation has already been performed, and it is to Burnside to prise open the secret hearts of painted figures. The characters find escape from pains rooted in the past (‘the loveless matron he’s had to endure for decades’) and the future (‘will...beat her...the moment he gets her home’); they do so by being ‘momentarily involved in nothing but the present’. Whilst his characters enjoy the freedom seemingly ‘to skate forever’, Burnside highlights life’s fragility in ‘a casual slip’, and ‘hazarding’, a word which serves a superb dual purpose.

Birds constitute a motif in both poems – in the first, the hope of reconciliation; and in the second, a metaphor for our own obliviousness. But in both Burnside contrasts our restricted bodies with that air of freedom and escape birds have always assumed in human eyes. The ‘feathered thing’ represents an escape from the tumultuous feud into which the lovers have fallen. The birds of Brueghel’s picture swoop and dive joyfully, unaware of chance evil, living for the moment. When he writes with obvious longing of the desire ‘to glide free in the very eye of heaven’, one is reminded of Wordsworth’s cry ‘Alas! The fowls of heaven have wings!’ It is our lot to remain grounded in the woes of humanity; however much we wish it and however much we feel it when we skate or swim or write poems, we cannot assume another form and escape our earthbound existence. Burnside’s poems form a powerful reminder of this fact.

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