War against the Grown-Ups

John Redmond

  • The Dumb House by John Burnside
    Cape, 198 pp, £9.99, May 1997, ISBN 0 224 04207 6
  • A Normal Skin by John Burnside
    Cape, 61 pp, £7.00, May 1997, ISBN 0 224 04286 6

A recent newspaper story told of a young man who went to hospital, seeking attention for stomach pains. Expecting to find some sort of cyst, the doctors opened him up. What they removed instead was a seven-inch-long foetus with the teeth of a 16-year-old. This improbable entity was the man’s twin, ‘absorbed’ long ago in the womb and still surviving off his brother’s body. When something so unusual happens, we are often immediately conscious of its literary co-ordinates, and this story falls squarely into the macabre area of John Burnside’s work. It is queerly echoed, for instance, by the conclusion of his prose-poem ‘Aphasia in Childhood’, which deals, in part, with exploring woods as a boy: ‘I was sure, if I dug a few inches deeper, I would find a being which resembled me, in every way, except that it would be white and etiolated, like a finger of bindweed growing under stone.’

Much of the impulse behind Burnside’s writing derives from the death in the womb of his twin, a death which is the explicit subject of several poems and (as above) the implicit subject of many more. It explains the most vital characteristic of his writing, a set of linked obsessions with doppelgängers, corpses, the soul, the skin and language. After such an event it is not surprising that Burnside sees the body as a precarious thing. In this respect, his most recent collection, A Normal Skin, is typical. One poem speaks of him ‘containing, like a cyst, my father’s soul’, while another tries to imagine his twin:

She bled away. But sometimes I wake in the dark
and feel her with me, breathing through the sheets,
or I turn in the shimmer of day and catch her out:

my opposite, though still identical,
she’s reaching down to haul me from a web
of birthmarks, age lines, scars beneath the skin.

Consisting of seven books in nine years, which return over and over again to a clearly troubling web of childhood experiences with his twin’s death at its centre, Burnside’s corpus, like Plath’s, has the air of something compulsively produced. Certain of his poems, sometimes to their detriment, seem like hastily written drafts of each other. In A Normal Skin, for example, one poem talks of ‘a black light, angelic and cold’ while, twenty pages later, another poem contains the phrase, ‘The light is angelic and black’ and then repeats the formulation some lines later. Because of such repetition and because Burnside has published so much within a relatively short time, it is hard to divide his work into phases. Many poems in his first book, The Hoop, would not be out of place in A Normal Skin, and vice versa.

The title of one Burnside poem – ‘Everything Is Explained by Something that Happened in Childhood’ – articulates a presumption which they all share. It also suggests another presumption which these poems share: that everything is explained by childhood. From the beginning, his work records a kind of one-sided War against the Grown-Ups and, as a consequence, it tends to divide between two worlds. The first of these, which is much less in evidence, is roughly coterminous with an adult sensibility, while the second, which almost completely dominates the first and on which most of the poems dwell, is roughly associated with the imaginative life of boyhood. The first world is normally associated with a ‘we’ while the second world is associated with an ‘I’. Often evoked by verbless descriptions, both worlds are static, what action they allow is of a habitual nature – in the first, a matter of tedious routine, in the second, a matter of thrilling ritual.

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