Several years ago, after reading Who Sleeps with Katz and immediately adopting Todd McEwen as one of those rare writers whose every word I have to read, I came upon the following lines as the epigraph for his novel Arithmetic:
I live in an invented place whose only purpose is avoidance, and what I would avoid, I carry with me, always.
The lines came from a poem called “Suburbs,” in a book called Common Knowledge, by John Burnside. The name wasn’t familiar to me then. The book was out of print and not to be had for less than $100 US. I see cheaper copies now, but poems from the collection have appeared since as part of his Selected Poems (a worthy addition to any poetry shelf), rendering it slightly less mysterious and elusive. In any event, I emailed John Burnside, probably mentioning the lines in the McEwen book and expressing my regret at how hard it was to lay hands on a copy of the full poem. To my surprise, he offered to send me a photocopy of “Suburbs,” from Scotland to Memphis, TN. It was no more than a small act of kindness, I suppose, and the cynic could paint it as self-serving, since it meant the promise of another reader, but there was a sort of purity to the act as well. He was, I imagine, proud of the work despite the fact it was out of print, and pleased to share it with someone he knew would take to it eagerly the moment it arrived. Understand: Arithmetic did nothing to dim my admiration for McEwen. It gave me the amusing and apt concept of “sofa feelings,” for instance, and to this day it’s one of the reasons I can’t fathom McEwen being so ignored in the U.S. But better still, it put me on to John Burnside’s work, and that’s an introduction I’ve never regretted.
A few years later, four or five I suppose, I applied to the PhD in Creative Writing at St. Andrews University, where Burnside teaches. I got accepted and went through quite a bit of paperwork and preparation before it became clear there was no way I could afford the cost of attendance. It was a missed opportunity of sorts, though if I’d gone, or been able to go, the losses in other areas would be immeasurable. I’d have a different life entirely, in short, one I can’t fully imagine.
I’ve kept an eye on Burnside’s work since, for the simple fact that he’s both prolific and uncommonly talented. He published a memoir earlier this year entitled I Put a Spell on You, but my purpose here is to mention his three new poems in the September 11, 2014 London Review of Books.
I don’t mean to reveal too much of what’s there, certainly not poems in full, but consider these lines from “Pluviose:”
Late afternoon, and further along the canal
the lock-keeper’s prettiest daughter is setting
eel traps in the clockless silt and purl
of waters her mother fished, before marriage and barter,
and though she has been dead for forty years,
she is living the life I lost on the way to school
in the body I failed to grow up in, her hands in the flow
of the river, finding the current
and teasing it loose, like a story, the word by word
of trains running through in the dark, in a seasonless rain,
and the faces in every compartment familiar and strange,
with a sister’s disdain, or a grandmother’s folded smile.
It hardly bears mentioning what a sure hand a poet as established as Burnside shows. Try not to linger over “clockless silt and purl/of waters her mother fished,” or “trains running through the dark in a seasonless rain.” Maybe you keep moving without a backward glance, but I can’t help sitting and turning those lines over and over, savoring the wholeness of the world in which they exist. By the time I read the closing lines of “An Essay in Sangfroid,” I wondered why I ever stopped writing poetry. “Faces/grinning from the dark,” Burnside writes, “a boyhood walking home, in autumn rain,/chill with the hope of being left untouched.”
He’s no secret, John Burnside, nor is his work, though I suppose he could be better known stateside. For those aware of him, those familiar with what he does, the pleasures are consistent in both poetry and prose. These poems are no exception. And that moment when the London Review site asks you to subscribe for access to the poems? They’re not asking anything unreasonable. They pay their writers, and I’d be hard pressed to come up with a publication that attracts a higher caliber of writer, issue by issue. To put it another way, it’s no coincidence Burnside’s poems are there, and nothing so good should come for free.
— John McIntyre