O nobly-born, listen. Now thou art experiencing the Radiance of the Clear Light of Pure Reality.
Recognize it. O nobly-born, thy present intellect, in real nature void, not formed into anything as
regards characteristics or colour, naturally void, is the very Reality, the All-Good.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead (tr. W. Y. Evans-Wentz)
All summer long, I waited for the night
to drive out in the unexpected gold
of beech woods, and those lighted homesteads, set
like kindling in the crease-lines of the dark,
catching a glimpse, from the road, of huddled dogs
and sleepless cattle, mustered in a yard
as one flesh, heads
like lanterns, swaying, full of muddled light;
light from the houses television blue,
a constant flicker, like the run of thought
that keeps us from ourselves, although it seems
to kindle us, and make us plausible,
creatures of habit, ready to click
into motion. All summer long,
I knew it had something to do
with looking again, how something behind the light
had gone unnoticed; how the bloom on things
is always visible, a muddled patina
of age and colour, twinned with light or shade
and hiding the source of itself, in its drowned familiar.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2009. 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 2009 was Andrew Greig.
Editor’ s comment:
John Burnside’s previous collection Gift Songs was my bedside book for months; this one will be. Patient, untricksy, calmly lifting the curtain around the unsayable. His concern seems always with Presence, the glimpsed-at along the margins of the visible. For myself, I identify with these Rilkean concerns with the numinous, the ever-present, which animate a number of the poems and poets here.
Author’ s note:
The initial prompt for ‘An Essay Concerning Light’ was a passage from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, in which the dying person is advised to go into the light – a phrase that has become a cliché, of course, in our lexicon of received ideas, after fifty or so years in which Buddhist ideas have become part of the cultural wallpaper. I’m not a Buddhist, but the idea of going into the light, both in its original form and in the many ways our culture has adopted/adapted it, has intrigued me for years, as have notions of what happens at the point of death in other cultures. Alongside this fascination, I am also obsessed with the play of dark and light, not surprising in a creature of the north, and this poem was, as its title suggests, intended as an ‘essay’ on the nature of light.