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The Inner Ear

John Burnside, 13 December 2001

... It never switches off; even asleep we listen in to gravity itself. Crossing a field is one long exercise in equilibrium – a player’s grace – though what we mean by that has more to do with music than the physics we imagine. A history of forest and the murk of oceans, nice adjustments in the memory of bone lead us to this: the gaze; the upright form ...


John Burnside, 30 March 2023

... A wintering;                          and everything we knowis hearsay: ravenspicking at a blood-knot in the snow, the villagelost, two miles away, the roadsimpassable.       All summer,there were others in the housedisguised as children, charmless, ravening,but clothed, as children are,in swansdown, proofedlike saints against the dayof judgment, when the livestock in the barngrow weary of themselves, their textbook formsreduced to hoof and bone, their dreams of lightdiscarded for the banquetry of slopson which we feed,though no one here is lean ...

Shiochie’s Hill, Dunkeld

John Burnside, 31 October 1996

... I want to begin again, climbing through beech roots and gulls to the hill of the fairies, to nest with the rooks, to sleep amongst broken yews, to crouch in the dark of the ice house, close to the stone; I’ll come after dark and feel the wet drift of their bodies, they’ll share me with the foxes and the deer, or borrow my human warmth to weave a caul for the child they have stolen and though I could say they are only imagined, the shiver in me that puts them there is real, a wish for something quick against a skin that cools too soon, and wears itself too lightly ...


John Burnside, 1 April 2004

... Stepping outside in the dark, if only to fetch the coal, this December night, I stop in a river of wind on the cellar steps and think of men, no different from me, transforming themselves at will to animals – misshapen lives suspended in the blood slithering loose and loping away through the snow half-flesh, half-dream; or, coming in, I turn to face the cold with nothing in my veins but haemoglobin, the thought of someone not unlike myself in borrowed senses – marten, dog-fox, wolf – coming to some new scent, some bitter truth, and gulping it down in the dark while the hunters listen ...


John Burnside, 8 January 2004

... town with the milk and a paper, the haar whites out the main streets, one by one: James Street, John Street, Burnside, Tollbooth Wynd, one step ahead all the time, as I make my way home, tracing a path of erasure back to the house where all I possess is laid up, like a storm: my furniture, my books, my ornaments, my lost ...

The Night Ferry

John Burnside, 17 December 2020

... Had I been less prepared, I would have leftin springtime, when the plum tree in the yardwas still in bloom,the windows open after months of snow,one magpie in the roadand then another.I could have slipped away, late afternoon,while everyone was busy somewhere else,the fish van at the corner, childrendawdling home from schoolin twos and threes, a porch lightlit against the dusk on Tollbooth Wynd ...

A False Awakening

John Burnside, 27 July 2023

... Only the minor gods have ventured outthis morning: delicateand silken, with a gift for mimicry,they do not stoop to punish, or forgive,though, sometimes, they are capableof blessing.I wake at dawn, but not to what I knowof Nineveh: a quinqueremein abstract, certain huesof cardamon, or tradescantia;a siege of herons; razorfish in shoals;cat snake and vipertracked across the flooror hidden in the feedat lambing time;till what I cannot recogniseas Silk Roador an ounce of vie en rose,is weaselled out of logic by a graceas final as that fault line in the mindwhere wildernesscomes slanting through the glintof self-deceit and guile to claim its own ...

Mother as Script and Ideal

John Burnside, 4 June 2015

... Always, I am coming home from hunting frogs or standing in the swim of wind beneath the last dyke and the sea;                   and, always, she is there, in lanternglow, a light that makes this world believable. My eyes turned from the snuff of paraffin and darkness in that house so long ago, I barely know it’s gone: the washrooms rinsed with frost, a skewed moon picking out the paths from here to there where someone, not myself, still wanders, till I lie down in the warm and wait for her to come, her hands a labyrinth of mint and carrion, her book the only one I have, its pages fingerstained with daisychain and lilac, and such depth in the pictures, I would find The Snow Queen, or the Lady of the Lake so readily, I thought they must be mine ...

To the Snow Queen

John Burnside, 22 September 2016

... Quest’è ’l verno, ma tal che gioia apporte Antonio Vivaldi If you think she exists like that, you should think again. It’s winter now, and love is not the question. Children see wolves through the trees and the beauty astounds them. Winter, they say; it’s winter, and joy is the question. Mistake her for what you will: when she stands in your path at evening, she is not the enemy you always hoped to find ...


John Burnside, 12 May 2022

... Psalm 139:23At one time,when there might have been a God,everything vaguelyconvent, dovesand serpents in the Treeof Knowledge, gospelwhispered down the galleriesof rain,I would have been awake for almostnothing in this perishable world,only a drift of rose, or cardamine,along the backroad home, wind in the trees,the angel half-revealed, improbable,lighting the hedge like a flamein the greenof morning ...

Want of Understanding

John Burnside, 22 November 2018

... NRS 125.330: Want of understanding. When either of the parties to a marriage for want of understanding shall be incapable of assenting thereto, the marriage shall be void from the time its nullity shall be declared by a court of competent authority. Conditions for the Dissolution of Marriage under the Nevada State Legislature When it no longer smells like an orchard standing all around me in the dark, the sense of a known Beloved that comes of garden work, the honey of a voice receding in my throat, my flesh less dream than sleep, an unrequited gap amidst the lanternlight that runs from tree to tree – when nothing on the air gives answer to that hollow in the bone from years ago, the wound I never tell, no scar to show by daylight, nothing Ancient in my house, or Perilous, when flocks of geese rise, month-long, from the fields and arc towards the north, I drown my vows and start again, one heartbeat at a time, till swallows map the lanes from spire to spire with mint and ozone, summering the dawn ...

Two Poems

John Burnside, 21 March 2024

... Love StorySamarkand never was, though there wereverses in the book that spokeof lacquerware and lapis lazuli,the beauty of our goods, delayed for monthsat Kandahar or Minsk, the horsesdreaming in the dark behindtheir blinkers, nightlongcaravans abroad beneath the sky.I stood out in the road, by Brewster’s Yard,and waited for a ghost, since ghosts were true,a pair of Clydesdales pressing to the fenceto listen: rain; the music of the spheres;or else, those calls I knew, from other worlds,the wind across the sands, a whimbrel’s cry ...

Two Poems

John Burnside, 30 June 2011

... Hyena Like something out of Brueghel, maned in white and hungry like the dark, the bat ears pricked, the face a grey velour, more cat than dog, less caracal than fanalouc or civet – here is the patron beast of all who love the night: waking at dusk to anatomy’s blunt hosanna, the carrion daylight broken then picked to the bone while the radio dance band fades to a slow alleluia, and far at the back of the mind, the perpetual frenzy: eye teeth and muzzle coated with blood with matter, as every mouth digs in, for fair, or foul, a giggle in the bushes, then a shudder ...

Homage to Greta Garbo

John Burnside, 2 September 2004

... I have a dream I wake from, now and then, mostly in summer, the swallows etching my walls with shadow, eider drowsing on the firth, the gold light in the street trees thick with gnats: surprised, as I slip from my bed, to see my neighbours’ cars, their bedroom windows curtained, someone moving on the street – a paper boy, the milkman on his rounds – when, only a moment before, I’d walked through town on just such a morning as this, the swallows hatching the walls in my head, the street trees clouded with sunlight and gnats, but nothing else: no paper boy, no curtains drawn on lives that I had always thought too much like theatre; no one moving in the world but me, so I could pass through any door and wander easily from room to room, unhindered and unobtrusive, nobody home to be offended when I opened drawers and cupboards for the drama of a world left unpossessed, the objects in themselves, that no one else had ever touched or seen, props for a play that no one was there to perform, their reason for being unknown, till the angel descended to set things in motion, with one final link in the puzzle: a bread knife, a needle, a hairbrush, an unwound clock, a fairytale apple, dusted with shadows and venom ...

The Archaeology of Childhood

John Burnside, 23 May 2002

... for Will Maclean I House If the house in a dream is how I imagine myself: room after room of furniture no one could use; stairs leading upwards to nothing; an empty hall filling with snow where a door has been left ajar; then whatever I make of the one room high in the roof where something alive and frantic is hopelessly trapped, whatever I make of the sweetness it leaves behind on waking, what I know and cannot tell is awkward and dark in my hands while I stop to remember the snare of a heart; the approximate weight of possession ...

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