I had never heard of poet and novelist John Burnside until he was suggested to me by an agent to write a foreword for a book I was working on the year before last (he ended up writing a lovely piece). I suppose once you have come across someone’s name, you’re more likely to pick up on it in future, and I recently read (can’t now remember where) a compelling review of his latest collection, Gift Songs; so I thought it was probably long overdue that I finally read some of his work.
Wow. I think I can honestly say that, although I’ve read a range of utterly fantastic poetry this year, this is the book that has struck me most, with its beauty, its seriousness, its sheer weight of brilliance, and I think at the end of the year I’ll be wanting to say that this is the best collection I’ve read – not that I usually think in those terms. Really, wow.
What did I love about this collection? Firstly it was just beautiful to read. His writing feels very crafted and elegant – full of beauty but in a kind of opaque, rather than showy, way. I loved what he was writing about: really going deeply into a sense of place, the way we live our days, the way we look at things. I suppose I really enjoyed the seriousness of it – it felt like reading philosophy, or theology – a probing and pushing at things, at life. And I loved that, even when I didn’t feel I was following his train of thought, it wasn’t necessarily because there was a piece of the puzzle I wasn’t getting – and in any case, I could luxuriate in the gorgeousness of the writing.
The last section was, probably, the toughest. It’s called ‘Four Quartets’, and the blurb on the inside front cover says that it’s ‘intended both as a spiritual response to the string quartets of Bartók and Britten (as Eliot’s were to Beethoven’s late quartets), and as an experiment in the poetic form that the finest of poets, the true miglior fabbro, chose as a medium for his own declaration of faith.’ Like Eliot’s Four Quartets, Burnside’s are dense and rich and I don’t feel one reading is enough to even really have touched the surface – so I’ll be going back to this to read again and again (probably with Bartók on in the background).
So, a truly stunning collection, and I’ll definitely be getting all of Burnside’s back catalogue. The whole thing was amazing, and it’s hard to pull out favourites as there are lots of interconnected pieces and I fell in love with every line, pretty much. But the ones I marked were ‘Liturgy’ from ‘Varieties of Religious Experience’, ‘The body as metaphor’, ‘Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer’ and ‘Prayer’ from ‘For a Free Church’, ‘La Brière’ from ‘Saint-Nazaire’ and ‘Lares’ (which I think refers to Roman household deities), again from ‘Varieties of Religious Experience’:
All afternoon I have heard you
going from room to room, as if you would offer
the gift of a watchful presence, the gift of a look
to how the sunlight gathers in the folds
how the shadows on the wall
flit back and forth, more sparrow, or swallow in flight
than birds would have been.
Like you I have felt it today, that space in our house
where doors might swing open
the curve of a bowl, or the red in a vase of carnations
softly assuming the forms of a visitation.
We go for weeks and never catch ourselves
like this, the trace of magic we possess
locked in the work of appearing, day after day,
in the world of our making;
we go for months with phantoms in our heads
till, filling a bath, or fetching the laundry in,
we see ourselves again, at home, illumined,
folding a sheet, or pouring a glass of milk
bright in the here and now, and unencumbered.
I think it’s also worth a mention that this is a really beautifully produced book – a gorgeous cover, really nice typesetting, lovely heavy paper and – joy – french flaps. All in all a beautiful read.