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Environmental and ecological readings

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Philippe Laplace

Part II. Nature, the Environment and the Posthuman: Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries

‘I Think of Them as Guests’: John Burnside’s Encounters with Nature

Monika Szuba

Texte intégral

  • 1 Patricia McCarthy, Interview with John Burnside, Agenda: Dwelling Places. An Appreciation of John B (...)

1John Burnside’s writing is closely connected with the problem of the natural order of beings and things. He thinks of himself as a dark green1, his poetic texts invariably concerned with the way we inhabit the world. In his poems, articles and essays, Burnside tries to overcome the residual anthropocentrism prevailing in Western thought, and seeks to establish another order. Born in 1955 in Scotland, he spent his childhood in Corby, and then studied Modern Languages (English, French and Spanish) in Cambridge. He moved back to Scotland where he lives now, teaching creative writing and ecopoetics at the University of St Andrews. Prolific writer, he is an acclaimed author of fourteen collections of poems, seven novels, two collections of short stories, and two volumes of memoir (a third one will be published in 2014). He is a regular contributor to The New Statesman, The London Review of Books, and The Guardian on literary, social, and environmental issues. He has received numerous awards, including Whitbread Book Award for The Asylum Dance (2000) and the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Forward Prize for Black Cat Bone (2011).

2The natural world moored concretely in physicality is central to Burnside’s vision, but it is imbued with the insubstantial presence of other beings. Animals and plants intermingle with ghosts and angels, crossing one another, intertwining with the self. The existence of all these elements in Burnside’s poetic universe offers a chance of pleroma, or fullness. This essay aims to examine some of the primary concerns of Burnside’s text such as home and dwelling, disconnection and the need for connectedness. It will analyse his deep-rooted associations with the natural world, focusing on presences, encounters and crossings. In order to discuss the above themes, I would like to focus on selected poems, particularly from the 2002 collection, The Light Trap, from The Asylum Dance published in 2000, and from The Hunt in the Forest (2009) although by no means the central themes of this essay are limited to these collections. This essay is divided into three parts, each devoted to what I consider to be an important theme of Burnside’s work. The first part will discuss presences, crossings and encounters as well as reconnection. In the second part special attention will be paid to the concepts of home and homelessness, dwelling, ports, and moorings. Finally, I will argue that one of Burnside’s main concerns is how the fleeting encounters with nature shape our identity and enable dwelling, together with the hope for fullness. Thus the third part will address the notion of pleroma, or the possibility of wholeness.

I. Presences/encounters/crossings

  • 2 Andrew McCulloch, ‘Field Mice’, TLS, 29 November 2011 <http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article832513.ece> [accessed 27 February 2015].
  • 3 James McGonigal, ‘Translating God: Negative Theology and Two Scottish Poets’, in Ethically Speaking (...)
  • 4 David Borthwick, ‘ “To Comfort me with Nothing”: John Burnside’s Dissident Poetics’, Agenda: Dwelli (...)
  • 5 Colin Manlove, Scottish Fantasy Literature: A Critical Survey (Edinburgh: Canongate Academic / Dufo (...)
  • 6 Earth Shattering, ed. by Neil Astley (Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2007), p. 203.
  • 7 James McGonigal, ‘Translating God’, p. 235.
  • 8 Louisa Gairn, Ecology and Modern Scottish Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), (...)
  • 9 Louisa Gairn, Ecology and Modern Scottish Literature, p. 156.

3Many critics have pointed out that the ecophilosophical thought is threaded through Burnside’s work. As Andrew McCulloch points out ‘Wildness is central to Burnside’s vision’.2 In turn James McGonigal demonstrates the ‘new links between Burnside’s environmental awareness and Gnosticism. Different dimensions of life (biological, intellectual, social and spiritual) appear in unity, and communicate his desire to create harmony between the self and the environment’.3 Critics often mention that Burnside employs Christian imagery in order to emphasise the importance of contemplative ways of being in the world, which helps create spiritual connections with our habitat’.4 They argue that Burnside’s Scottish heritage reflects a typically Scottish fascination with the supernatural and folk tale tradition, and ‘a continuously mystic strain in the Scots’ psyche, the sense of a deeper living world beyond or within this one’.5 Described as ‘radiant, meditative’,6 his poetry offers a rich mixture of ‘the Scottish/continental tendency towards analysis of arcane experience or supernatural glimpses with the more English tendency towards ‘pastoral escape and contemplation of detail’.7 Burnside’s connection with Scottish tradition is further suggested in attention to the natural world, which is an essential element of a diverse Scottish literature.8 As Louisa Gairn argues, ‘in Scotland, contemporary poetry, and lyricism more generally, constitute an ecological “line of defence”, providing a space in which reader and author can examine their relationship to the world around them.’9 Indeed, as will be argued here, Burnside’s poetry explores the relation between human beings and the natural world, frequently foregrounding their inextricability.

  • 10 Attila Dósa, ‘John Burnside: poets and other animals’ in Beyond Identity: New Horizons in Modern Sc (...)
  • 11 Attila Dósa, ‘John Burnside: poets and other animals’, p. 117.
  • 12 Attila Dósa, ‘John Burnside: poets and other animals’, p. 117.
  • 13 Contemporary Poetry and Contemporary Science, ed. by Robert Crawford (Oxford: Oxford University Pre (...)

4Burnside has been given many labels – ‘green poet, nature poet, mystical poet, Scottish poet, religious poet’10 – but he rejects them all, perhaps most vehemently ‘nature poet’. He dislikes the term ‘nature poetry’, arguing that creating divisions between human beings and the natural world is unnatural.11 Further, he posits for the poetry of ‘we’, which he defines as ‘preserving the environment and studying how we, human beings, should dwell on the Earth without destroying’,12 often talking about the need to ‘connect with something larger and wider, with the more-than-human’.13 I believe that it can be suggested that both in prose and in poetry one of Burnside’s major preoccupations is a companionable presence, which is very often something sensed, but not seen. For instance, in a short story from his collection Something Like Happy, ‘Deer Larder’, he evokes something there, a presence, felt but invisible. There is also a passage in his novel, Glister (2008), in which Leonard first feels and then glimpses a creature dying in a corner of the chemical plant, unable to identify what it is. The examples of such presences abound in Burnside’s writing. In his poems, he frequently stresses that the company of other creatures is something elusive and ephemeral. For instance, the first part of the poem sequence ‘In Memoriam’ (from The Hunt in the Forest) ‘À bout de souffle’, with its opening references to ether, phosphorescence and the shape of breath, reminds us of the fragility of such companionable presence. The real presence is always elsewhere: ‘your body is a gloss | on something else’ or hiding in the ‘perfect lull | between lost and found’. The poem highlights twilight zones, a frequent preoccupation of Burnside’s work, at times constituting the median plane between the inanimate and the super-animate, or ghosts. There are also hints of a haunting presence of the dead and death – but it is perhaps a theme to be explored somewhere else.

5The fleeting encounters often take place in the chiaroscuro (the title of a poem in A Normal Skin) of ‘not quite night’, which further enhances the crossings between spheres and betweenness is ever-present in Burnside’s work. For instance, in ‘Fields’ we only ‘catch a look’ of something, a presence, a ghost image:

Be quick when you switch on the light
and you’ll see the dark
was how my father put it:
            catch
the otherlife of things
            before a look
immerses them.

6Here, as in many other poems, something – often unrecognised, unidentified, unnamed, or unnamable – brushes past and its fleeting presence is felt. For instance, the poem ‘Animals’ (from The Light Trap, 2002) opens with the following lines:

There are nights when we cannot name
the animals that flit across our headlights

7The glimpse of the unnamable, and the ignorance of the observer, are insisted on in the fourth stanza:

they cross our path, unnamable and bright
as any in the sudden heat of Eden.

8Similarly to ‘Fields’, the above poem also demonstrates a presence felt, but not clearly discerned, resulting in crossings, points of touch, and brief encounters. Another motif that has already been mentioned is darkness, which alters vision, warping the sense of sight. The employed verbs – ‘flit’, ‘chanced upon’, ‘cross our path’, ‘we’ve sometimes caught a glimpse’ – further enhance this impression. The second part of the poem turns from the wilderness to a presence at home, from the outside to the inside. It introduces a changed perspective, developed over time, a kind of realization, as in the lines ‘In time, we came to think that house contained | a presence’. The plural speaker of the poem discerns something, which again cannot be named, ‘a kindred shape more animal than ghost’. The gaze is returned, the presence watches them back, or at least they share such an impression. In the next two couplets the association between an animal and the self is made in a dream: an alchemical transfer occurs, the self

that mess of memory and fear
that wants, remembers, understands, denies,

and even now, we sometimes wake from dreams
of moving from room to room, with its scent on our hands

and a slickness of musk and fur
on our sleep-washed skins.

9At the opening of the poem Burnside explores the poetry of ‘we’ in the first part offering a shared experience. However, in stanza seventeen we notice a transition from ‘we’ to ‘I’, which introduces an individual perception, a kind of Jungian individuation, enhanced further by the concept of self recalled in the following lines:

though what I sense in this, and cannot tell
is not the continuity we understand

as self, but life, beyond the life we live
on purpose: one broad presence that proceeds

by craft and guesswork,
shadowing our love.

10At first the hereness of the self and the thereness of the world is foregrounded, yet further in the poem there is a suggestion of the self and the other merging together. It seems a recurrent concern in Burnside’s writing as the author frequently talks about the unbearable disconnection that exists between the world and us, stressing that in his poetry he attempts to – if not abolish – then at least alleviate the separation:

  • 14 Marco Fazzini, ‘Kenneth White and John Burnside’, in The Edinburgh Companion to Contemporary Scotti (...)

My poetry works at the borderline between “self” and “other” – partly with a view to undermining the feelings of separateness that make us capable of damaging the world in which we live, the meta-habitat that we must share with all other things [...] At the core of these explorations [...] lies a fundamental concern with healing, in its broadest sense: not the healing of the world, or of‚ the other’ so much as a healing of oneself, sufficient to allow for a continuation of meaningful and non-destructive play between self and other.14

  • 15 Maitreyabandhu, ‘The Provenance of Pleasure’, Poetry Review, 101: 1, spring 2011 <http://www.poetrysociety.org.uk/lib/tmp/cmsfiles/File/review/1011/1011%20centrefold%20Maitreyabandhu.pdf> [accessed 27 Febr</http> (...)

11As demonstrated in the above quotation, Burnside expresses hopes for healing through poetic form by abolishing harmful divisions, stressing familiarity, sharing. In the poem ‘Animals’ acknowledging the presence of other creatures is visible in the careful choice of words: it is ‘a kindred shape | more animal than ghost’, where kindred, or next of kin suggests something close and familiar, from the Old English word that signified ‘family’, but also ‘nature’ and according to Burnside, our primary reality is composed of – among other things – our ‘creaturely nature’.15 There is a transition from the verbs in the first part of the poem (‘flit’, ‘caught a glimpse’, ‘passed’, ‘chanced upon’), to a straightforward ‘see’ in stanza eleven, to ‘sense’ and ‘cannot tell’, ending with ‘one broad presence that proceeds | by craft and guesswork’, thus suggesting something imperceptible and inexpressible, founded on intuition rather than cognition.

  • 16 Contemporary Poetry, ed. by Robert Crawford, p. 93.
  • 17 Attila Dósa, ‘John Burnside: poets and other animals’, p. 122.
  • 18 Attila Dósa, ‘John Burnside: poets and other animals’, pp. 121-22.
  • 19 Attila Dósa, ‘John Burnside: poets and other animals’, p. 122.
  • 20 Maitreyabandhu, ‘The Provenance of Pleasure’.

12The motif of a presence concealed somewhere in nooks and crannies, and only slightly sensed, occurs in other poems. For instance, in ‘Ahimsa Bee Sutra’ (from The Hunt in the Forest), and ‘Field Mice’ (from The Light Trap), where there is an insistence on dark, hidden places, tucked away from our sight, thus invisible, yet present. In the latter, lexis suggesting fragility and ephemerality abounds. The use of words such as ‘air’, ‘dust’, ‘musk’, ‘spoor’ further foreground a sense of transcience. It is part of Burnside’s poetic programme to emphasise the importance of all things ‘considered minor, commonplace, even trivial’,16 because, as he argues, ‘It’s the commonplace that is real’,17 and his ‘constant search for the authentic’18 involves an endeavour to find authenticity in the commonplace, the real, ‘the lived experience’.19 The everyday is a theme that is cherished by many authors, who argue that it constitutes the prime source of the creative act: as David Constantine recalls, Bertolt Brecht had a motto pinned above his door, ‘Truth is concrete’.20

13Following the assumption that it is the commonplace that is the real, Burnside’s speaker pines for it, expressing this yearning in the opening lines of ‘Field Mice’, ‘I think of them as guests. | The closest we come to wild’. The expression ‘the tidy street’ introduces a sterile landscape, which is contrasted with the homeliness of nature. Similarly, the senseless noise of ‘talk-shows and the news’ offers an image, which is the opposite of a meaningful life, the speaker listening for outside noise. The presence of the field mice is ‘a hidden stream | of warmth and fear’, it is not something solid, but rather constitutes a blend of emotions. The nouns ‘odour’, ‘shreds’, ‘bulbs’ further enhance this impression: subtle and intangible, they offer a thought of a concrete presence, its possibility. The temporariness of dwelling and the fact that knowing the natural world is provisional is highlighted in lines eleven and twelve: ‘the home | we only half possess’, where a Heideggerian concept is alluded to, which will be discussed in the second part of this essay.

14The presences in ‘Ahimsa Bee Sutra’ are an act of faith, as the opening word – ‘doubtless’ – paradoxically suggests. Once again, it is a presence sensed or imagined. The expression ‘a place is reserved’ suggests a special treatment, something inaccessible and intimate. The last word in ‘Ahimsa Bee Sutra’ evokes religious undertones, ending with the word ‘resurrection’. It demonstrates a deeply spiritual approach, with its religious references, but also a truly ecumenical one, linking Buddhist and Christian motifs. It also connotes the hope or possibility of renewal, of healing, of the restoration of a certain order. A sutra means an aphorism, a rule, a formula; it is a lesson that Burnside gives, a suture-sutra, combining bees with a lion, as if they were sewn together.

  • 21 Contemporary Poetry, ed. by Robert Crawford, p. 93.

15Both poems, ‘Ahimsa Bee Sutra’ and ‘Field Mice’, foreground sentience which is threaded in Burnside’s writing. This is a concept which is well-rooted in eastern philosophies, where the idea of non-humans as sentient beings is related to ahimsa, or doing no harm. The latter term is present in Burnside’s poetry, and he often highlights the need expressed by deep green scholars to include all beings: ‘A philosophy of dwelling that includes all things, living and non-living, and informed by the principle of ahimsa, of doing, if not no harm, then the absolute minimum of harm.’21 The inclusiveness appears to be a typical feature of Burnside’s poetry, which explores the necessity to share one’s home with other creatures, but also highlights the impermanence, the fleeting and frail nature of home.

II. Home/dwelling

  • 22 Martin! Heidegger,! ‘Building! Dwelling! Thinking’,! in Poetry, Language, Thought,! trans. by Alber (...)
  • 23 Contemporary Poetry, ed. by Robert Crawford, p. 93.
  • 24 Patricia McCarthy, Interview with John Burnside, p. 23.
  • 25 Robert Crawford, Identifying Poets: Self and Territory in 20th-century Poetry (Edinburgh: Edinburgh (...)
  • 26 Robert Crawford, Identifying Poets, p. 147.
  • 27 Louisa Gairn, Ecology and Modern Scottish Literature, p. 166.
  • 28 Louisa Gairn, Ecology and Modern Scottish Literature, p. 161.
  • 29 James McGonigal, ‘Translating God: Negative Theology and Two Scottish Poets’, p. 243.
  • 30 Yi-Fu Tuan, Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values (Englewood Cliff (...)

16Connectedness comes from the realization that people share their provisional home with other creatures, which introduces dwelling, a term coined by Martin Heidegger, which has been one of Burnside’s main preoccupations from the early collections.22 Heidegger develops the concept in his essay “Building Dwelling Thinking” (1954). We may understand dwelling as a way in which people relate to the environment and engage with nature. We dwell where we are at home, where we find our place in the world: the sense of place is central to the philosophy of dwelling. As Burnside frequently stresses, the influence of this Heideggerian concept on his poetry has been considerable. What is more, he foregrounds the role that poetry plays in ‘the duty of dwelling’.23 For instance, one of the epigraphs to A Normal Skin (1997) comes from Wallace Stevens: ‘Out of this same light, out of the central mind, | We make a dwelling in the evening air, | In which being there together is enough.’ Further, one of the epigraphs to The Asylum Dance comes from Heidegger’s writing on dwelling, explicitly suggesting that this is the poet’s preoccupation. Frequently returning to Heidegger, who focused on human homelessness, the provisionality of our home, Burnside admits that his philosophy shaped his own and argues that ‘the perpetual need for settlement, like the quest for the moment’s grace, is necessary because home, like grace, is a temporary, sometimes fleeting thing, and cannot be occupied as such’.24 Unarguably, home is an important motif as Robert Crawford argues, ‘home is in fact central to modern poetry.’25 He points out that the title of Burnside’s collection, Common Knowledge, was originally to have been Home, and that ‘the concerns about the uncertainties of identity and homing glimpsed in an explicitly Scottish context in “Exile’s Return” are central to Burnside’s imagination’.26 The questioning of the philosophical idea of ‘home’ or ‘belonging’ is for him one of the central concerns of ecology. As is sometimes argued, ‘Burnside is haunted by the possibilities of ‘dwelling’, of an authentic way of “being in the world”’27, informed by his reading of Heidegger. Gairn notices that the epigraph of The Light Trap, coming from Paul Shepard’s ‘Habitat’, suggests the existence of ‘something more mutually and functionally interdependent between mind and terrain, an organic relationship between the environment and the unconscious’.28 Similarly, McGonigal claims that the two volumes, The Asylum Dance and The Light Trap ‘reflect a tension between home and foreign landscapes, and the desire to travel between’, adding that the word habitat is read richly in the epigraph to the opening poem as ‘an organised relationship between the environment and the unconscious, the visible space and the conscious, the ideas and the creatures’.29 According to Burnside, finding a way to the right dwelling on Earth offers the possibility to ethical life and the motifs of home and habitat have constituted his preoccupation since the early collections. For instance, the first section in The Light Trap is ‘About habitat’ and we may easily recognize that Burnside is concerned with what Tuan Yi-Fu calls ‘noncarpentered’ habitat, as opposed to the ‘carpentered’ one, replete with straight lines, the latter lacking in regularity.30

17The impermanent nature of habitat and home is frequently foregrounded in Burnside’s poetry. For instance, the opening poem from The Asylum Dance (2000), ‘Ports’, is preceded by a quotation from Henri Michaux: ‘Pas de port. Ports inconnus.’ The quotation emphasizes plurality, the dissipation of dwelling, its provisionality: ports suggest something intermittent, transient, as opposed to a permanent home. ‘Ports’ is divided into three parts, and the names of the parts bear meaning. They are ‘Haven’, ‘Urlicht’ (alluding to the Fourth movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony n° 2), and ‘Moorings’. All the words refer to a sense of place, fleeting and impermanent. The lines ‘Whenever we think of home | we come to this: the handful of birds and plants we know by name’ evoke a familiar setting, a milieu we feel at home with/in, equipped with the capacity to name, thus domesticating the unknown. The form of the poem is marked by a degree of irregularity: there are no regular stanzas, the lines are broken, scattered, and I would argue, they emphasize rootlessness:

Our dwelling place:
            the light above the firth
shipping forecasts
            gossip
            theorems
the choice of a single word to describe
the gun-metal grey of the sky
            as the gulls
flicker between the roofs
on Toolbooth Wynd.

  • 31 Wild Reckoning: An Anthology Provoked by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, ed. by John Burnside and Ma (...)

18The poem stresses the interdependence of mind and land, continuity and discontinuity, and yearning for reconnection with the natural world. Burnside often writes about sharing the world, as in the following quotation from the introduction to Wild Reckoning (2004), an anthology that Burnside co-edited with Maurice Riordan, which marks the anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring: ‘how we view nature is only part of a wider question. And that question is one of belonging, a reckoning, and an accommodation, with the world around us, where no home is offered, but everything — including the ultimate mystery of life itself – is shared.’31

19If we return to ‘Field Mice’, we may notice again that Heideggerian philosophy reverberates in the lines ‘the home | we only half possess’, echoing the philosopher’s words on dwelling and sharing. The opening line of the poem, ‘I think of them as guests’, expresses respect for and appreciation of the animals. It is important to note the shifting pronouns: ‘I’ in the first line turns into ‘we’ (interestingly, the opposite direction to the one in ‘Animals’). The line ‘The closest we come to wild’ is a striking choice of direction, a shift of focus, breaking an anthropocentric vision, offering a non-human perspective of space and time. Once more Burnside’s opinion on the anthropocentrism of the Western world is visible.

20Is it possible to detect respect and admiration for the natural world, observed from a distance in the poems? For instance, in ‘Geese’ the speaker admires the homing instinct, the unerring flesh. The verbs employed to evoke the experience include: ‘imagine’, ‘see’, ‘watch’, which enhance the distance of the observer, suggesting that the connection is in the realm of dreams:

but homing
    in the purer urgency
of elsewhere
    which is nothing like the mind’s
intended space
    but how the flesh belongs.

21As is visible in the above lines, Burnside recurrently foregrounds the necessity of home, expressing the yearning for belonging and admiration for the homing instinct of birds.

22However, Burnside is far from romanticizing nature. Some poems offer a bleak vision of the world, demonstrating Burnside’s attempt to distance himself from romantic visions. For instance the epigraph of the poem, ‘Steinar Undir Steinahlithum’, which reimagines annihilation of an Icelandic tribe, is ‘Nature offers no home’ (James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games), suggesting bleak homelessness, and once again echoing Heidegger.

  • 32 Fiona Sampson, Beyond the Lyric: A Map of Contemporary British Poetry (London: Chatto & Windus, 201 (...)
  • 33 Christopher Whyte, ‘Twenty-one collections for the twenty-first century’, in The Edinburgh Companio (...)

23A lot of Burnside’s poems, for instance ‘Ports’, ‘Geese’, ‘Blues’, ‘Desserts’, ‘Settlement’, ‘In Memoriam’, ‘Creaturely’ to mention just a few titles, are characterised by lines varying greatly in length and arrangement on the page. He rarely uses regular stanzaic forms, choosing more organic shapes instead. Fiona Sampson calls the form deployed by Burnside ‘the expanded lyric’, arguing that it suggests ‘air, space, or a resonating chamber’.32I would like to argue that Burnside’s forms demonstrate an innovative approach, or reserved attitude towards literary tradition, but it seems to serve other purposes too, namely that he employs poem sequences in order to signal the search for connectedness. I believe that lack of regularity in the stanzaic form enhances the impression of chance encounters, their fleetingness. The lines do not sit still on the page, but flit across it, sometimes suddenly broken by enjambments: iambic pentameters prevail, but they are ensconced by broken down lines. Christopher Whyte argues that pentameter rhythms are ‘so automatic for John Burnside that he attempts to conceal them by splitting lines or dividing them across the page’.33 The seeming formlessness suggests lack of rootedness, lack of shape, lack of containment – instability, shapelessness, and disturbance. Also, the impossibility of – but also the yearning for – wholeness may be reflected in such irregular poetic form. This search for wholeness through poetry is reflected in poetic forms favoured by Burnside, who underlines musicality and insists on listening intently for search of harmony, or fullness.

III. Pleroma, or wholeness

  • 34 James McGonigal, ‘Translating God: Negative Theology and Two Scottish Poets’, p. 244.

24The idea of pleroma, a Gnostic concept signifying ‘full perfection’, or wholeness, is recurrent in Burnside’s writing. The imagery and metaphors in his poems heighten the longing for unity. For instance, if we look at the epigraph to The Light Trap, we find another quote from Wallace Stevens, this time coming from ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’: ‘A man and a woman | Are one. | A man and a woman and a blackbird | Are one’, demonstrating that to be one with the non-human world is one of Burnside’s main preoccupations. We may see what Burnside recurrently writes about pleroma i.e. the ‘underlying order, the fundamental connectedness, the soul energy that runs through everything’.34 In ‘Viriditas’, the title alludes to vitality, the green force of life, but also spiritual health and divinity, and in the last poem from the collection, ‘A Theory of Everything’, Burnside foregrounds wholeness:

for this is how the world
occurs: not piecemeal
but entire
and instantaneous

25In the above lines the speaker states that, accessed through immediate knowing, the world appears whole and complete, but he also foregrounds the fact that unity is elusive. The poem ending with the following lines, in which Burnside once more alludes to Stevens:

the way we happen:
woman blackbird man

26It is important to note the choice of the verb here: we ‘happen’, which highlights the contingency and randomness. Extended spaces between the nouns highlight the distance yet at the same time the alignment stresses affinity between them.

  • 35 Marco Fazzini, ‘Kenneth White and John Burnside’, p. 123.
  • 36 Hannah Arendt, ‘Introduction’, in Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. by Harry Zohn (London: Pim (...)

27Burnside refers to ‘illumination, a re-attunement to the continuum of objects and weather and other lives that we inhabit’, which becomes a way for him to define what a lyric poem really is: another point of entry to the quotidian, ‘another source of that clarity of being that alchemists call pleroma’.35 As has already been mentioned, the equating of human self with the animal is at the centre of many of the poems, insisting on the unity of self and other, human and animal, an interrelated totality. For instance ‘Ports’ (from The Asylum Dance), ‘An Essay Concerning Light’ (from The Hunt in the Forest), ‘The Fair Chase’ (from Black Cat Bone), ‘A Process of Separation’ (from A Normal Skin), to mention just a few. Connections in his poems are constructed by means of poetic devices such as metaphors. Burnside quotes Hannah Arendt’s definition of metaphor, ‘Metaphors are the means by which the oneness of the world is brought about’36, which seems very useful to him in creating the sense of unity in his poems. If we look at the metaphors in some of the above poems, we will see how they act against the impossibility of oneness. For instance, ‘the house of the self’ (‘Ahimsa Bee Sutra’), ‘the otherlife of things’ (‘Fields’), ‘the continuity we understand | as self’ (‘Animals’), or life as ‘one broad presence’ (‘Animals’) to give just a few examples. Burnside’s poetic technique frequently relies on introducing an extended metaphor that continues throughout the whole poem. As has already been demonstrated in the poems quoted above, the choice of imagery heightens the feeling of connection and unity, voicing a certain yearning for wilderness. Unarguably, this preoccupation is also visible in the title of the collection published in 2014 All One Breath, once again alluding to the yearning for a unifying order. The expression comes from Ecclesiastes, quoted at the beginning of the collection: ‘so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast’, which offers a return to one of the major preoccupations in Burnside’s poetry, namely the equality between human beings and animals.

  • 37 Attila Dósa, ‘John Burnside: poets and other animals’, p. 118.
  • 38 Contemporary Poetry, ed. by Robert Crawford, p. 105.
  • 39 Contemporary Poetry, ed. by Robert Crawford, p. 99-100.
  • 40 John Burnside, Otro mundo es posible: Poetry, Dissidence and Reality TV (Edinburgh: Scottish BookTr (...)
  • 41 John Burnside, Otro Mundo es Possible, p. 9.

28Burnside assures us that poetry performs an important role to find unity as we have lost the connection with the natural world, he repeats, frequently writing about our disconnection from wild nature arising from increasing isolation caused by technological advances which distance us from the natural world further and further. However, as he demonstrates in his poetry, we are never entirely cut off from it: the poems point to the necessity to reunite a broken relationship with the animal world, and he admits that his books are ‘about the continuity and the discontinuity between human beings and the natural world’.37 Foregrounding the feelings of separateness, and calling for mending the gap, Burnside urges for the non-destructive sharing of the habitat. In the essays and interviews, he stresses that the purpose of ‘ecological art’, which is to reconnect us: ‘Such a reconnection seems to me the basis of a new way of thinking, a way of thinking that, in turn, may change the way we dwell in and with the rest of the living world’38, adding that ‘poetry itself can be seen as a means – a discipline, a spiritual path, a political-ecological commitment – to wholeness and reconnection with the earth itself. For an ecologically-mindful poet, the task is one of reconnecting, of rediscovering, as it were, one’s own nature through connection with a wider reality, with the more-than-human’.39 Re-establishing the connection, and thus striving for pleroma, Burnside argues, is possible thanks to full awareness, mindfulness, and the faculty of listening. In his essay, Otro mundo es posible: Poetry, Dissidence and Reality TV, published in a pamphlet form, he urges us to listen attentively to the song of the earth: ‘We need to press our ears to the earth and listen. If we can hear the beating or a heart, we may continue to live as humans. If we hear nothing, we will go on as shadows.’40 The essay constitutes the poet’s manifesto concerning writing and reading poetry, ‘a heightened self-awareness, in which we are capable of knowing the self, and laying it to rest, for a time, in order to be open to, to attend to, to listen to that world’41, resulting in an intimate feeling of seamless reality.

Conclusion

  • 42 Mark Strand ‘On Becoming a Poet’ in The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, ed. b (...)
  • 43 George Hart & Scott Slovic, ‘Introduction’ in Literature and the Environment. Exploring Social Issu (...)
  • 44 See Tom Bristow, ‘Environment, history, literature: materialism as cultural ecology in John Burnsid (...)
  • 45 Contemporary Poetry, ed. by Robert Crawford, p. 93.
  • 46 Contemporary Poetry, ed. by Robert Crawford, p. 93
  • 47 John Burnside, Otro Mundo es Posible, p. 10.
  • 48 Contemporary Poetry, ed. by Robert Crawford, p. 96.
  • 49 John Burnside, Otro Mundo es Posible, p. 10.

29Burnside’s poetry manifests a heightened awareness of presences of other beings, reporting fleeting encounters and crossings. It recurrently points to the necessity to learn anew how to dwell in our temporary homes, and expresses considerable hope for reaching pleroma through poetic experience. It may be stated that the poems, through their recurrent themes analysed in this essay, demonstrate what Mark Strand considers a universal quality of poetry, namely that through poetry ‘the conditions of beyondness and withinness are made palpable’.42 In his poetry, Burnside goes beyond our human nature and towards our creaturely one, reminding us that people should ‘feel and appreciate their own naturalness, their involvement with the physical world, the more-than-human world. We are animals – nothing more or less. And yet we strive increasingly to suspend ourselves above nature, to enclose ourselves within human-constructed spaces and technologies, to establish abstract, virtual relationships with other people, other species, and even with the natural resources we rely upon for our daily existence’43, which offers an ecopoetical vision of the world.44 As Burnside argues, poetry, being ‘an essentially ecological discipline’45, instructs us how to dwell and experience ‘a necessary awe’ which is ‘vitally necessary, to any description of the world’.46 His poems aim at demonstrating rifts in the fabric of the world but his ecophilosophical approach involves the search for means of mediation: the points at which the environment and the self intermingle, reconnect, which helps imagining ‘a world of dwelling’.47 Encounters, even if brief, are not insubstantial, the guests invariably leave traces, and we are regular witnesses of such crossings, always conscious of the presence of the other. His poems suggest that our chance encounters with the wilderness are the only possibility to reestablish order. Also, they insist on the provisionality of our home. The last words in the collection The Asylum Dance are ‘somewhere in between’, thus foregrounding Burnside’s relationship to the natural world: we are between, wandering from port to port, seeking wholeness during the moments of intimacy when ‘reality is continuous, seamless, and inclusive’.48 As he writes, ‘everything – everything – is continuous, everything belongs, the world of being is seamless and entire, one fabric, one glimmering lattice of interdependence. One extended heartbeat.’49

Notes

1 Patricia McCarthy, Interview with John Burnside, Agenda: Dwelling Places. An Appreciation of John Burnside, spring/summer 2011, vol. 45 no 4/ vol. 46 no 1, pp. 22-38 (p. 34).

2 Andrew McCulloch, ‘Field Mice’, TLS, 29 November 2011 <http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article832513.ece> [accessed 27 February 2015].

3 James McGonigal, ‘Translating God: Negative Theology and Two Scottish Poets’, in Ethically Speaking. Voice and Values in Modern Scottish Writing, ed. by James McGonigal and Kirsten Stirling (Amsterdam, New York: Rodopi, 2006), p. 235.

4 David Borthwick, ‘ “To Comfort me with Nothing”: John Burnside’s Dissident Poetics’, Agenda: Dwelling Places. An Appreciation of John Burnside, spring/summer 2011, vol. 45, no 4/ vol 46, no 1, p. 92.

5 Colin Manlove, Scottish Fantasy Literature: A Critical Survey (Edinburgh: Canongate Academic / Dufour Editions, 1996), p. 10.

6 Earth Shattering, ed. by Neil Astley (Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2007), p. 203.

7 James McGonigal, ‘Translating God’, p. 235.

8 Louisa Gairn, Ecology and Modern Scottish Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), p. 1.

9 Louisa Gairn, Ecology and Modern Scottish Literature, p. 156.

10 Attila Dósa, ‘John Burnside: poets and other animals’ in Beyond Identity: New Horizons in Modern Scottish Poetry (Amsterdam & New York: Rodopi, 2009), p. 113.

11 Attila Dósa, ‘John Burnside: poets and other animals’, p. 117.

12 Attila Dósa, ‘John Burnside: poets and other animals’, p. 117.

13 Contemporary Poetry and Contemporary Science, ed. by Robert Crawford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 105.

14 Marco Fazzini, ‘Kenneth White and John Burnside’, in The Edinburgh Companion to Contemporary Scottish Poetry, ed. by Matt McGuire and Colin Nicholson (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), pp. 121-22.

15 Maitreyabandhu, ‘The Provenance of Pleasure’, Poetry Review, 101: 1, spring 2011 <http://www.poetrysociety.org.uk/lib/tmp/cmsfiles/File/review/1011/1011%20centrefold%20Maitreyabandhu.pdf> [accessed 27 February 2015].

16 Contemporary Poetry, ed. by Robert Crawford, p. 93.

17 Attila Dósa, ‘John Burnside: poets and other animals’, p. 122.

18 Attila Dósa, ‘John Burnside: poets and other animals’, pp. 121-22.

19 Attila Dósa, ‘John Burnside: poets and other animals’, p. 122.

20 Maitreyabandhu, ‘The Provenance of Pleasure’.

21 Contemporary Poetry, ed. by Robert Crawford, p. 93.

22 Martin! Heidegger,! ‘Building! Dwelling! Thinking’,! in Poetry, Language, Thought,! trans. by Albert! Hofstadter! (New! York: ! Harper! Colophon Books, 1971). Heidegger! is! one of Burnside’s major! influences,! which! is! demonstrated! in a! number! of! poems addressing! the idea! of! dwelling! as! well! as! a! passage! from! ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ used as one of the epigraphs to The Asylum Dance (London: Cape, 2000). See also! Burnside’s! interview! with Patricia! MacCarthy: McCarthy, Patricia, ‘Interview with John Burnside’, Agenda Dwelling Places. An Appreciation of John Burnside, spring/summer 2011, vol. 45, no 4/ vol. 46, no 1, pp. 22-38.!

23 Contemporary Poetry, ed. by Robert Crawford, p. 93.

24 Patricia McCarthy, Interview with John Burnside, p. 23.

25 Robert Crawford, Identifying Poets: Self and Territory in 20th-century Poetry (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993), p. 147.

26 Robert Crawford, Identifying Poets, p. 147.

27 Louisa Gairn, Ecology and Modern Scottish Literature, p. 166.

28 Louisa Gairn, Ecology and Modern Scottish Literature, p. 161.

29 James McGonigal, ‘Translating God: Negative Theology and Two Scottish Poets’, p. 243.

30 Yi-Fu Tuan, Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1974), p. 75.

31 Wild Reckoning: An Anthology Provoked by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, ed. by John Burnside and Maurice Riordan (London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2004), p. 21.

32 Fiona Sampson, Beyond the Lyric: A Map of Contemporary British Poetry (London: Chatto & Windus, 2012), p. 248.

33 Christopher Whyte, ‘Twenty-one collections for the twenty-first century’, in The Edinburgh Companion to Scottish Literature, ed. by Berthold Schoene (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2007), p. 81.

34 James McGonigal, ‘Translating God: Negative Theology and Two Scottish Poets’, p. 244.

35 Marco Fazzini, ‘Kenneth White and John Burnside’, p. 123.

36 Hannah Arendt, ‘Introduction’, in Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. by Harry Zohn (London: Pimlico, 1999), p. 20.

37 Attila Dósa, ‘John Burnside: poets and other animals’, p. 118.

38 Contemporary Poetry, ed. by Robert Crawford, p. 105.

39 Contemporary Poetry, ed. by Robert Crawford, p. 99-100.

40 John Burnside, Otro mundo es posible: Poetry, Dissidence and Reality TV (Edinburgh: Scottish BookTrust, 2003), p. 11.

41 John Burnside, Otro Mundo es Possible, p. 9.

42 Mark Strand ‘On Becoming a Poet’ in The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, ed. by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland (New York & London: W.W. Norton & Co., 2000), p. xxiv.

43 George Hart & Scott Slovic, ‘Introduction’ in Literature and the Environment. Exploring Social Issues Through Literature, ed. by Claudia Durst Johnson (Westport and London: Greenwood Press), p. 8.

44 See Tom Bristow, ‘Environment, history, literature: materialism as cultural ecology in John Burnside’s “Four Quartets”’, Scottish Literary Review, 2, 3 (2011).

45 Contemporary Poetry, ed. by Robert Crawford, p. 93.

46 Contemporary Poetry, ed. by Robert Crawford, p. 93

47 John Burnside, Otro Mundo es Posible, p. 10.

48 Contemporary Poetry, ed. by Robert Crawford, p. 96.

49 John Burnside, Otro Mundo es Posible, p. 10.

Auteur

Monika Szuba completed her PhD on the subject of strategies of contestation in the novels of contemporary Scottish women authors. She has published a number of articles on contemporary fiction and poetry. She is co-organizer of International Literary Festival BETWEEN in Sopot, Poland. She is also co-editor of the between.pomiędzy series published by the University of Gdańsk Press and one of the founding members of the Textual Studies Research Group as well as the Scottish Studies Research Group at the University of Gdańsk. Her research interests include contemporary British poetry and prose.

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