There are times when I think
of the knowledge we had as children:
the patterns we saw in number, or the spells
and recipes we had
for love and fear;
the knowledge we kept in the bones
for wet afternoons,
the slink of tides, the absolutes of fog,
or how a lapwing’s egg can tip
the scale of the tongue;
how something was always present in the snow
that fell between our parish and the next,
a perfect thing, not what was always there,
but something we knew without knowing, as we knew
that everything was finite and alive,
cradled in warmth against the ache of space,
marsh-grass and shale, and the bloodroot we dug in the woods
that turned our fingers red, and left a stain
we kept for weeks, through snow and miles of sleep,
as if it was meant to happen, a sliver of fate
unstitching its place in the marrow, and digging in.
About this poem
The Scotland Canada Exchange 2006 – 2007, in partnership with Canada's poetry magazine Arc, features Scottish poets introducing the work of their favourite Canadians, and Canadian poets presenting the work of their chosen Scots.
Canadian poet Aislinn Hunter introduces Scottish poet John Burnside:
I first discovered John Burnside's poetry the way most poets discover other writers: in the form of a slim volume sitting on a crammed bookshelf in a good bookstore.
First of all I liked the title of the book (The Light Trap) and the look of the font. I also liked the author's name: it seemed warm and somehow familial. I pulled the book out, opened it up and read a few lines. There it was: a sense of travel, of being Elsewhere, of seeing another world as no one, save John Burnside, has ever seen it. Who in Canada would write, as Burnside does in Common Knowledge, of 'The classes of jamjars. Subtleties of string'? Of 'tubers locked in bottles, sprouting wings'? No one I knew of. But more than that, more than the specifics of language and place, Burnside was good: a good philosopher and a good technician; a rigorous examiner of the common and the ephemeral; of the seemingly insignificant and the large.
Born in Fife in 1955, John Burnside is the author of nine collections of poetry, five books of fiction and a memoir, A Lie About My Father, published by Jonathan Cape this year. He's often regarded as a nature poet, an 'outdoors' writer, but his subject matter is also the quiet contemplation of houses viewed from the street or lives revealed through the local record of community. 'We used to walk in the suburbs, spying into the houses of people we imagined were rich: interiors of perfect stillness, unbearably tidy…'.
Burnside's poetry is taut and well constructed but the subject matter is not tidy. His writing is part lyric philosophy part narrative study. His terrain is that of the jutting image, the quick surprise. He is part magician and part attentive observer: the man in the first row watching the world's sleight of hand, that shift and change which is transmogrification and perception. He is the eyewitness who slows the story down to reveal shifts inside of shifts, tricks within tricks while never losing sight of the wonder.
I thought of Burnside's poetry again last November. I was walking the riverside through Dean village in Edinburgh and thinking I'd look for more of his books while I was in Scotland. The day was crisp and sunny, the pathway muddy and lightly rimmed with frost. I'd walk five minutes without seeing anyone and then intermittently a solitary walker or a couple with wet and steaming dogs would walk by. On one of the quiet stretches I looked down towards the underbrush. For an instant I thought I saw something in the foliage. Well, that's not true: I knew there was nothing in there – the leaves hadn't moved, there was no sound, nothing to draw my attention – but the play of light on the surface leaves and the depth of the greenery made me feel that something could be in there, that it was possible there was more there than met the eye.
I remember thinking that only a landscape with this light, this kind of bundled up shadow could give birth to writers like Robert Louis Stevenson and James Barrie: writers of altered states, of transformation. Burnside's work, like the Scottish landscape, has this quality. It is full of sudden changes, tricks of light and slant perception. His language reflects this, images often work as hinges: headlamps are headlamps but then become, in an instant, the eyes of a dreamer. Things change, take on new forms but Burnside retains his distance, writing from the intersection between the magical and the everyday, exploring the interstitial with a mix of devotion and bemusement. Sometimes he's with us, pointing down the road or back into memory, standing 'at the edge of the woods on Fulford Road / my mind on the blue of elsewhere…' and sometimes he's away 'along the empty road, / like someone taken in a fairy tale…'. But regardless of where he goes we follow his thinking, happy to arrive with him in places both familiar and strange.
Burnside's poetry is rich with detail: the uncanny: 'a veil of silt and linnet bones' and the oft overlooked: 'rooms above the business of the garden'. One of his strengths is his attention to cadence, to the resonant in both sound and image. In one poem, the dead on Halloween gather by the harbour, 'their eyes like the eyes of seals, their faces / meltwater blue, as if they had surfaced through ice…'. Burnside's work first appealed to me because it was imaginative, because I am a writer obsessed with pinning things down and because Burnside is willing to live in the terrain of 'sometimes' of 'incandescence' 'ambiguity' and wonder. As he says in the poem 'Koi', 'it's not the thing itself / but where it stands / –– the shadows fanned / or dripping from a leaf / the gap between each named form and the next…'. In the poem 'History' Burnside writes of 'shifts of light / and weather / and the quiet, local forms / of history…'. This is his terrain and it is one I've never encountered anywhere else. Striking and imaginative, this is the work of a writer in his prime.