John Burnside ‘All One Breath’

Published in 2014, this is Burnside’s 13th (!) collection and weaves familiar topics (death, perception) with the grounded detail so typical of his work. Divided into four sections, the collection moves through a journey of self-exploration – it’s an emotionally tiring read, unsettling and enlightening in equal measure.

The opening section is titled ‘Self-Portrait as Funhouse Mirror’. Containing ten poems about self-perception, this section plays with mirrors and superstitions. The overarching mood is melancholy and it feels particularly gothic in places, especially in the opening poem ‘Hall of Mirrors 1964’ with its distortions. It immediately has the stamp of Burnside in its mixing of the grandiose and the everyday when a Seneca epigraph is blended with references to “old man Potter’s land.” This metaphysical discussion of the difficulty in knowing and portraying one’s true self is further expanded in ‘Self-Portrait’ as he admits that “The one thing you want to portray is the one thing it lacks”. This self-criticism spills into self-hatred in ‘A New Anatomy’ in phrases such as “local theatre of self-/as-prodigal” and “till he longs to disappear” and this self-criticism feels all the more important in this modern age of ‘perfectionism’. It is refreshing to have a collection that looks inward with such a critical eye.

The humility in his work keeps it grounded – as does his use of the detail, which he uses to profoundly moving effect in ‘The Wake’, a poem filled with grief at the loss of his grandmother where he notices how the “the soul might linger on…a thumbprint on a cup.”

One of my favourite poems in this section is ‘Power Cut’, as he plays masterfully with the differences in perception, using a game of mirrors to devastating effect, combining deft images such as “when the candle/wavers for a moment and we’re lost/in depth of field” and “wisps/ of distance in the mirror” in couplets filled with weight and pause.

The first section ends by looking forward to the next generation as he expresses his guilt at not being able to protect his son from the realities of life. His self-loathing is devastating as he sees himself through his perception of his son’s eyes “how my life/is not the life he thinks of when he thinks/of being happy”, describing himself as “an Everyman with nothing in his face.”

The next section ‘Devotio Moderna’ is more concerned with death as Burnside weaves it into his poems about self. The first poem in this part ‘New Year’ indicates a slight shift in direction and ends with the poise of “thirteen-minute loop/of grainy footage”, again making reference to the mirage of self.

There’s a brutality in the image of

“bodies we dissolved

in Pinot Noir

and Paracetamol” that lingers through the collection, coming to a head in the haunting ‘Officium’ where he declares “eternity comes creeping, like a thief.”

 

‘Life Class’ is the title of the third section and here the gaze begins to shift outwards. The key marker of this part of the collection is that Burnside begins to populate the poems with the details of other peoples’ lives and use them to develop the sense of melancholy that permeates these poems. There’s a real sense of loneliness and melancholy in the observation of ‘Tommy McGhee’ “with the cold flask and rolled-up newspaper/ tucked in his coat.” Here the observation of others’ loneliness serves to emphasise his own, especially when he talks a lot about death in this section, with ‘At My Father’s Funeral’ and ‘Tod und Verklarung’ both about his dead father. However, as with most of his poems, there is a beauty in the melancholic images with the phrase “Your body full of night” in ‘Hotel de Grave’ possibly one of the most beautiful images in the collection. This section moves back towards the self in the final poem ‘Going South’ which meshes the ideas of a loss of self and nature in the lines:

“a steady delete

of anything that tells us what we are.”

 

The title of the final section ‘Natural History’ gives a large clue as to the recurring motifs in this part of the collection.   Everything relates to nature and animals, such as in Alcools I “your skin wastes away/ in its birdcage of milksop and rubble.” However, it’s in ‘Erosion’ that the themes combine, a beautiful longer poem that weaves a funeral prayer, remembrance of dead grandfather (of course described with natural references) with the present day and an observation of a single farmer alone in the fields to devastating effect: “in spite of us, who are no more to it

than chatter, or a species

of erosion.”

Despite the melancholy and the negativity, this isn’t a wholly depressive collection. I think ‘Nocturne’ is my favourite poem in the collection, filled with insights both honest and enlightening such as “we all need a second life”

The final poem ‘Choir’ ends on “all one breath”, a wonderful paradox. It’s not clear if it’s a final or a first breath, or whether it’s a hopeless or hopeful note.

 

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