From the Chinese
by John Burnside
Turn of the year
and a white Christmas turning to slush
on my neighbours’ fields
crows on the high road,
the yard streaked with coal dust
geraniums turning to mush
in the tubs and baskets.
I walk to the end of the road
to ease my sciatica:
ditch water, gorse bones; how did I get so cold
Thaw in the hedge
and the old gods return to the land
as buzzard and pink-footed goose and that
daylong, perpetual scrape
of winter forage;
but this is the time of year
when nothing to see
gives way to the hare in flight, the enormous
beauty of it stark against the mud
and thawglass on the track, before
it darts away, across the open fields
and leaves me dumbstruck, ready to be persuaded.
from Black Cat Bone (London: Cape Poetry, 2011)
John Burnside is a prolific writer: over a dozen collections of poems, half a dozen works of fiction, several memoirs… and the way they pour out is also typical of a single Burnside poem, which poet-critic Fiona Sampson has suggested ’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…’. The poems have strong details yet blurred outlines: the country Burnside inhabits – his native Fife, the frozen north Europe he frequently explores – is often rain-swept, seen through mist, under cloud, under water.
In such landscapes, what is insubstantial becomes haunting, and unfinished stories, elusive memories, are revisited. There is an unhoused soul in this poetry, testing all sorts of boundaries. There are also birds, feral animals, and plant life: Burnside’s deep awareness of the natural world and human despoilation is key to his writing. In this poem, from a collection that won both the T.S. Eliot and the Forward prizes, there is just a hint at the end that he might believe in the possibility of the beautiful changes that spring could bring.