David Green

David Green (Books) is the imprint under which I publish booklets of my own poems, when there are sufficient of them. Apart from that, the website has become what it is. I hope you find at least some of it worthwhile.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

John Burnside - All One Breath

John Burnside, All One Breath (Cape)

One of the many ways that poets can be differentiated is on a scale between frugal and prolific. That this book is John Burnside's 13th collection and comes only two and a half years after Black Cat Bone puts him high on the prolific scale but only apparently as his books get better and better.
He is also one for using epigraphs and two, from Ecclesiates and Shakespeare, introduce the book and another introduces its first section before we arrive at any poems. But they set out some themes of the poems in advance, about life shared between humanity and animals and harmony in human relations. And then the first part, Self Portrait as Funhouse Mirror, concerns itself with identity, self and reflections of self.
There are disparities between the individual and their mirror image, how they see themselves or how they are made to see themselves,
                                       we're always
fearful of the image in the glass
that might, in some far nightmare, find us out
as mine does me

and elsewhere, he thinks of his father's borrowed understanding of love,

and though the words he speaks are learned
from radio and 50s musicals

he isn't that far wrong in thinking
love is like a story he has longed

for years to tell.

But the book meditates a lot on the deaths of his father and other family relations. The deceased are still somehow present but need to be helped to depart. In The Wake, mirrors are covered so that they are not brought back by them. And At My Father's Funeral  considers ways of making sure he can't return as older cultures did.
Throughout these poems, extinction or its eventual inevitability are never far from our thoughts. In Nocturne, Christmas 2012, there are,

the otters and the sunbirds straggling towards extinction
while, lodged inside the covers of our books
their images persist

which is only one of any number of examples of Burnside's great phrase-making within his framework of long, ongoing sentences draped artfully across his line endings.. For his elderly
grandmother it was 'the world/ all guesswork'; urban development has meant 'the steady delete/ of anything that tells us what we are' and as a child he might have become 'an expert on fog'.
Each sentence is filled with more thought than you might have thought necessary or that it might comfortably contain,

if moths know anything of love

it has nothing to do with the beautiful doom
we long for;   

But if Burnside's subject matter sounds bleak, brooding on mortality and loss, it really isn't. By some act of almost exhilarating humanist transcendance, he makes of it a resilient and sustaining attitude in which strangeness and familiarity, being and non-being, contain each other.
The last poem, Choir, tells of his voice breaking at the age of 12 and how he took himself to the back of the choir in shame to hide but he knew the choirmaster was complicit in the subterfuge. It is one small detail that grows from a secret to encompass a far greater communal understanding, a shared experience,
                       back then it seemed
that, like as not, most everything runs on
as choir: all one; the living and the dead:
first catch, then canon; fugal; all one breath.

It's rare for the best poetry book of the year to appear in February, the industry being organized as it is, but it is going to take an enormous performance from anybody else to impress more than this does in the rest of 2014  John Burnside has sprung to the forefront of my most admired contemporary poets and this book readily stands alongside the best of anything I've seen in the last decade.