Book review: All One Breath by John Burnside

Burnside urgently seeks self-knowledge in latest collection

“Erosion”, from John Burnside’s superb collection All One Breath, finds the speaker, clearly pretty close to the poet himself, keeping himself busy in the back yard.

Over the fence lives a bad neighbour, a farmer “laying waste to his fields”. Burnside’s concern with the fate of the Earth at our hands is well known, but here he delivers a denunciation with unanswerable, Wordsworthian authority: “Soon he’ll have turbines up; soon he’ll buy out/ my better neighbours, building, field by field,/ his proud catastrophe/ of tin and mud./ I loathe him, but it’s nothing personal: / he’s only one of many, motiveless/ and carefully indifferent to all/ he cannot buy or use, a friend/ to none, and yet not enough in him/ of worth or life/ to qualify as foe.” Bravo. In the imaginary court of human decency, the accused would combust in shame, ignited by carefully placed iambs.

But Burnside has no such expectation in mind. Things will go on as they are, because, as he put it in “Travelling South, Scotland, August 2012”: “We’ve been going at this for years:/ a steady delete / of anything that tells us what we are, a long/ distaste for the blood warmth and bloom/ of the creaturely: local/ fauna and words for colour, all the shapes/ of ritual and lust/ surrendered where they fell, beneath a fog/ of smut and grime and counting-house.”

At the back of Burnside’s mind there seems to a circle he cannot square. He is not alone in this. On the one hand we are a part of the world, dependent on its integrity, part of the “choir” of existence, and on the other we destroy it – if “we” are indeed one tribe and not us and them. Other parts of the book are full of doubles, too – the face in the mirror, the self as performed and as endured or concealed, the way that being here makes the idea of elsewhere so implacably and beautifully desirable.

There are typical Burnside lists of scents and hints and glimpses, the kind of thing that might come too readily to him – “something other/ than the world we’ve seen” – but here, though no less beguiled by mystery, he is also urgently seeking self-knowledge. What part of him has been present to the world, and what has been secret? A whole reconfigured subject seems about to surface: how to reconcile the self’s imperfections with the urge to praise which so often prompts Burnside’s art. It sounds like a religious question.

 

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