When we are gone
our lives will continue without us
– or so we believe and,
at times, we have tried to imagine
the gaps we will leave being filled
with the brilliance of others:
someone else gathering plums
from this tree in the garden,
someone else thinking this thought
in a room filled with stars
and coming to no conclusion
other than this –
this bungled joy, this inarticulate
conviction that the future cannot come
without the grace
of setting things aside,
of giving up
the phantom of a soul
that only seemed to be
while it was passing.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2007. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2007 was Alan Spence.
Like a number of Scottish writers of his generation, John Burnside is not afraid of tackling the big spiritual questions, and he writes with a ferocious and questioning intellect allied to an openness of the heart. 'Afterlife' is part of a sequence on Varieties of Religious Experience. Couched initially in the language of philosophical discourse - or so we believe - it moves into an effortless lyricism - in a room filled with stars - and ends with a quiet downbeat that whips the rug away from under the reader, a moment of emptiness that is yet affirmative - giving up / the phantom of a soul / that only seemed to be / while it was passing. Masterly.
'Afterlife' is part of a longer sequence entitled 'Varieties of Religious Experience' (after William James' philosophical enquiry into religious ideas and experiences). As the title suggests, it is a short enquiry into the subject of the 'afterlife' - that is, the question of what life there is after the death of a specific individual - me, you, a loved one. It doesn't matter, in a consideration of this poem, whether or not the reader (or indeed the writer) believes in 'an afterlife' (in the usual sense of the word), because this is the exploration of an idea that permeates our mental life, just as the idea of God, or sin, or karma permeate our mental life. We are governed in all kinds of ways by ideas and images and metaphors that we don't officially (rationally) 'believe in'.
What the poem does, to begin with at least, is take the idea of life after death literally - that is, it accepts that, after 'I' die, (say), other people are still alive, and so there is such a thing as an 'afterlife'. This sounds naïve, of course - but the poem wants to ask, is it so naïve after all? There is a wonderful tradition in Spanish poetry where the poet talks about his own death, then imagines his garden (usually it's a garden) continuing without him, being enjoyed or tended by others - and I wanted to suggest that, for starters. I also wanted to have the reader ask questions about who this 'I' might be who is dying in the poem, and what we might mean when we think of a 'soul' continuing into the afterlife. What is this 'soul'? How would it continue?
I am beginning to gloss too much the actual poem and that is something to avoid. Of course, a poet wants to present his or her poem as a room into which a reader can wander, in which they can look out of the window, pick up the ornaments and knick-knacks, look at the pictures on the wall and make themselves at home. In a sense, one could say that the poem is, in this respect, the afterlife of the poet, as he or she was in the making of the poem.
I would say, however, without further exegesis, that this is a poem that I find immensely affirmative - an affirmation of the place death plays in the continuation of life (with a big L, if you like). One might say that transient, individual examples of life die so that the larger story can continue - and in my view that is as much of an afterlife as I would wish for, or could need.