Black Cat Bone is a deserving winner of this year's Forward Prize for best collection. John Burnside's 12th volume adds to and deepens a body of poetry that is already exceptionally significant – and utterly recognisable. A musician and chromaticist, he's a poet whose rapt, floating verse conjures up effects of great beauty in both the ear and the imagination.
He also knows, however, that the "uses of enchantment" concern the darkest aspects of human nature. Black Cat Bone includes scenes of murder and animal frenzy, as well as the more usual bad ends of being unloved and forgotten. This combination of beauty and abjection, a tonality found nowhere else in British poetry, has brought Burnside a cult readership.
But he is also simply one of the finest poets writing today. While the tiny handful of his British peers embraces clarity and a rhythmic steadiness, Burnside's poems resemble ragas more than traditional Western forms. Their organic shapes seem generated by their material, and by the running line of phrase leading to phrase, not quite a stream of consciousness but something close to it: "At the back of my mind, there is always/ the freight-line that no longer runs/ in a powder of snow //and footprints/ from that story we would tell/of the girl from the next house but one" ("Hearsay"). These lines wax and wane like breath. We are carried along by the telling itself.
Such writing shows us a world in which there can be no omniscient narrator. Sometimes a distracted consciousness feels so close it's as if we can hear it breathing: the narrator of "Bird Nest Bound" wakes to a sense of "the true self walking away, through a woodland clearing,/ the air so still, it seems he's chanced upon// an old belonging, something he couldn't believe/ till now." Yet the writer is exact and knowledgeable in his detail. A "Neoclassical" poem set in parkland has "frogs in the marguerites" and a hedgehog "hunting for snails/ in a river of wind and yarrow": a detail which manages both to be naturalistic and to suggest the I Ching's use of yarrow stalks for divination.
Black Cat Bone distils its dreamscapes into four sections. The opening long poem, "The Fair Chase", is followed by "Everafter", an exploration of romantic love and its repeated disappointment; "Black Cat Bone", haunted by images of a murdered girl; and "Faith", a series of poems broadly concerned with keeping faith with the human condition "while the radio dance-band fades/ to a slow alleluia". "The Fair Chase", arguably Burnside's most narrative verse since The Asylum Dance in 2000, is a sort of northern version of the Actaeon myth, in which the hunter becomes the hunted. It's a portrait of guilt that proves – if proof were needed – the immediacy and relevance of Burnside's extraordinary, haunting and haunted, imagination.
Fiona Sampson's 'Rough Music' was shortlisted for the 2010 Forward and TS Eliot prizesReuse content