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Two Poems

John Burnside, 7 September 2017

... Pibroch To the make of a piper go seven years of his own learning and seven generations before … At the end of his seven years, one born to it will stand at the start of knowledge, and lending a fond ear to the drone, he may have parley with old folks of old affairs. Neil Munro, ‘The Lost Pibroch’ We were talking about the hills when the land fell silent ...

At Notre Dame de Reims

John Burnside, 4 April 2019

... the snake is a snake; but the toad has a human face, in the hidden gallery under the roof, where the masons practised their art, away from the bishops and kings. We’ve seen this much before (in Salisbury, say, or that chapel above the Esk at Rosslyn): a refuge for the pagan in the chill of Christendom, a Green Man in the fabric of the stone; a running boar; the sacred hare; or else the common wren, so lifelike it might flit at any time into a corner, tail erect, the eye agleam, as if to indicate its known propensity for lust (which, in the old tongue, meant no more than pleasure: no-one’s shame and not a sin, but life as such, immediate and true like flight, or song ...

George and the Dragon

John Burnside, 22 October 2015

... This killing will never stop.                    It’s not enough to slay the beast, he has to make it clear how calm his loathing is, how utterly devoid of fellow feeling; and though she is present, the woman is incidental; whatever he hoped in the past, he’s not here, now, for the wet of her mouth on his skin, or his curdled hands tangling in the spilt folds of her gown ...

Six Poems

John Burnside, 4 April 1996

... Desire When we’re apart I imagine us in Japan, two hundred years ago, behind a screen, or watching the snow from the yawn of a paper room, the lovers in some shunga by Harunobu. It’s that formality we sometimes need to feed desire: intimate, yet giving in to light and shadow, allowing the other space to be intact and seen, like the single pine in a yard of gravel, revealed by the tug of the grain and this curtain of snow ...

The Lazarus Taxa

John Burnside, 5 February 2015

...                               Still they stood, A great wave from it going over them, As if the earth in one unlooked-for favour Had made them certain earth returned their love. Robert Frost If anything is safe to love, it is the jellyfish, Aurelia aurita, that pink and silver moon-cloud, drifting wild in every harbour from the South Atlantic to the Bay of Reykjavik; or Hippocampus, monstrous to the Greeks, though shaped like horses, gentle as the wind in August, moving softly through the weeds, the brood male gathering the eggs into his pouch like treasure, while the female swims away to miles of seagrass; coral; predators ...

Three Poems

John Burnside, 11 September 2014

... Pluviose There is a kind of sleep that falls for days on end, the foothills lost in cloud, rain in the stairwells, rainspots crossing the floor of the Catholic church and the sense of a former life at the back of our minds, as if the dead had gathered here in shapes that seemed at least familiar, if not perfect. As children, we were told they came for our sakes, bringing secrets from the cold, the loam on their eyes and hands a kind of blessing, but now they are here, in the creases and lines of our mouths, speaking through us to friends we have never seen, or only to the rain, because it sounds the way it sounded then, when they were young, setting a ladle aside, or a finished book, and the world almost come to an end, when we stopped to listen ...


John Burnside, 5 December 2013

... For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.                                                                       Psalm 103 Alone at home, I’m working in the yard, sun-warmed, a breeze off the coast, the farmer from over the road laying waste to his fields, loam gone to dust in the heat; I can see it gusting away ...

By Kautokeino

John Burnside, 17 October 2002

... I walk in a shower of ice on the Finnmarksvidda: freezing rain, not snow; hard pearls of ice, stinging my face and hands as I make my way to the frozen lake. No sign of life – just scats and moulted hair; but something calls from far across the water, some elemental, lost beneath the sky, darker than flesh and blood when it calls again then waits, as if it wanted me to answer and snow beings to fall – huge, sudden flakes, drifting between the birch trees, blurring the moss, as if some festival had been resumed, the ceremony of another season ...

Three Poems

John Burnside, 25 March 2010

... Descent Edinburgh Turnhouse, November 2009 I There’s something of the sky in everything or so it seems tonight, lights swimming up from hill-farms in the Pentlands, close to snow between the dairy-yards and presbyteries that straggle out, in spokes of white and gold to stars and clouds beneath the eye of heaven; II and always it’s there, that soft attentiveness, not looking down, or watchful, more a bandwidth in the squalls of microwave to which some wisp of distance in the heart could tune itself and find, beyond itself, a wavelength it could take for now or never ...

Two Poems

John Burnside, 7 October 2010

... Faith The tent show had been and gone and now there was nothing but rust and sunlight, like a poultice on the grass, candy and broken glass and a spare tatter of hallelujah blown through the dust where somebody passing through had stopped to write a half-dozen half-formed letters we couldn’t decipher out where the trailers had stood at the edge of the night and the May Queen was lost for hours before she was missed, her mother asleep after back-shift, her father a rumour, a story the woman would tell of a distant summer; idealised, hazy at best, he had left her one morning at dawn for the Sanskrit of rain ...

Three Poems

John Burnside, 30 August 2012

... A Frost Fair That old cliché: it seemed that time had stopped; and people we thought we knew came quietly out of the cold to meet us. Some of us thought it had something to do with the sun, and some, with how the planets were aligned, but later, when the river froze for miles, we took our first crazed steps into an air we’d never breathed till then, our strange companions smiling, as we pitched our tents and stalls, happy to see the flags and bunting, as if yellow was a thing they’d never seen before – and red, and green – as if, for them, the world was always white: snow on their lips and hands and a shine in their eyes that made us think of children like ourselves watching a magic lantern in the dark and falling, through slide after slide, into understanding ...


John Burnside, 17 March 2011

... Was it Leon, your cousin, or Leon, the tow-headed boy with the scar like a crescent moon beneath his ear you dated for almost a year in that backwater town where you lived when you lived with your father? Or was it someone else rigged up the boat to drag a skier through the sweet brown river, kids taking turns to stand tall in the wake and feel the cool of it, the unaccustomed thrill of seeing themselves from the outside, almost grown and elegant, like people who had luck and money? All afternoon they hurtled back and forth at breakneck speed till this boyfriend or cousin went down in a tangle of weed and, laughing, called out to the rest to go fetch help, he’d crashed into a mess of razorwire that someone must have dumped there – not unusual for that place, you said, you’d see the strangers driving away all the time in battered pick ups, headlights dusting the track with gold, in the swim of summer ...

Three Poems

John Burnside, 12 September 2019

... Whoso List to Hunt Small comfort to be had in mea culpa, damp afternoons, just shy of saccharin, a boyhood in the rain rescripted as a child’s compendium of minor sins. No subtlety of eyes around my bed; no whispered blame, no frost-fall in the blood, but later, when I lay me down to sleep and all the lamps burn out across the yards, I come home to the sadness of the creatures: our hunting fathers, drowned in no man’s land, love in the absence of Thou, the finer disciplines that winter recommends, such sanctuary I find, but cannot keep, since in a net I seek to hold the wind ...

Three Poems

John Burnside, 12 September 2013

... Self-Portrait as Picture Window First day of snow, the low sun glinting on the gate post where a single Teviot ewe is licking frost-melt from the bars, the other sheep away in the lower field, the light on the crusted meadow grass that makes me think of unripe plums so local an event it seems, for one long breath, that time might stop; or, better, that it isn’t me at all who stands here, at this window, gazing out, not me who woke up late, when everyone had gone to work or school, but someone else, a man so like myself that nobody would spot the difference – same eyes, same mouth – but gifted with a knowledge I can scarcely register in words, unless I call it graceful and nomadic, some lost art of finding home in sheep trails, lines of flight, the feel of distance singing in the flesh, that happiness-as-forage, bedding in, declining, making sense of what it finds ...

Two Poems

John Burnside, 11 September 2003

... Annunciation with zero point field Sitting up late in the dark I think you’re about to tell me that story I’ve heard before of a creature pulled from the ice, or prised from a ditch, its body a hundred years old, but the eyes intact and hardly a trace of decay on the frost-white skin; and later, how they cut along the spine and found two spurs of cartilage above the shoulder blades: not wings, or not quite wings, but something like a memory of flight locked in a chamber of bone it had barely abandoned ...

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