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John Burnside, 5 April 2001

... The trick is to create a world from nothing – not the sound a blackbird makes in drifted leaves; not dogwood or the unexpected scent of jasmine by the west gate not the clouds reflected in these puddles all around the bowling-green deserted after rain and darker than an early Polaroid – but nothing which is present in the flesh as ripeness is: a lifelong urgency ...

Two Poems

John Burnside, 20 September 2001

... Learning to Talk This is our game for now, rehearsing words to make the world seem permanent, and ours; before it disappears, I will have named all we can see, from here to the snow on Kvannfjellet, the yarrow in the grass, a passing swan, eider and black-backed gull at the rim of the sound. I gloss uncertainties – this lime green weed that fetches up a yard above the tide; those seabirds in the channel, too far out to call for sure; these unspecific moths; a chequered wagtail, similar enough, though different, to those we know at home ...


John Burnside, 20 February 1997

... Remembering the story of a man who left the village one bright afternoon, wandering out in his shirt-sleeves and never returning, I walk in this blur of heat to the harbour wall, and sit with my hands in my pockets, gazing back at painted houses, shopfronts, narrow roofs, people about their business, neighbours, tourists, the gaunt men loading boats with lobster creels, women in hats and coats, despite the sun, walking to church and gossip ...

Two Poems

John Burnside, 23 January 1997

... Beholding As dawn moves in from the firth I’m sitting up awake, a mug of tea fogging the window, the bones of my hands and face shot with insomnia’s delicate, lukewarm needles. You’re still asleep. Your hair is the colour of whey and your hand on the pillow is clenched, like a baby’s fist on a figment of heat, or whatever you’ve clutched in a dream, and I suddenly want to ask your forgiveness for something deliberately cruel in the way I see, in the way all seeing could become: too hard, too clear, refusing to find something more than the cool light of morning ...
...  something that comes from the dark (not self or non-self) but something between the two like the shimmering line where one form defines another yet fails to end; look for the proof in snow or the bleed of light between the shorefront and the harbour wall this late December evening: nothing there; but listen, and it sounds like wings arriving quietly over the firth and further out the snow is also falling as surely as it falls upon the lawns and hedges in this narrow seaside town ...

The Last Man to Speak Ubykh

John Burnside, 22 August 2002

... The linguist Ole Stig Andersen was keen to seek out the remaining traces of a West Caucasian language called Ubykh. Having heard that there was one remaining speaker he set out to find the man and arrived in his village on 8 October 1992. The man had died a few hours earlier. At times, in those last few months, he would think of a word and he had to remember the tree, or the species of frog, the sound denoted: the tree itself, or the frog, or the state of mind and not the equivalent word in another language, the speech that had taken his sons and the mountain light; the graves he swept and raked; the wedding songs ...


John Burnside, 19 June 2003

... For Lucas Morning; the usual walk to the harbour: the tide half-out the fat mud fretted with bird-prints light slurred with oil and slicked reflections ice white or coffee brown strawberry red or a blue that never arrives at daylight. We are here so you can name the world you know one object at a time: fishing boat, lighthouse, herring gull, open sky, those shoals of fish that skirt the harbour walls searching for food a work you never tire of watching as they break in hungry waves against the weed ...

De Anima

John Burnside, 6 March 2003

... My son is learning insects – woodlouse bee a line of ants a lone fritillary. He finds them on a flagstone or a leaf and quizzes them the start of dialogue and so commencement of the soul’s unfolding self-invention in a world that shifts and turns but really has no end and surely what we mean by soul is something no anatomist could find: a total sum of movement and exchange how winter starts along an empty street the first snow flaring dark into the light a parents’ conversation overheard between the gold of wireless and the green of solstice or the lamp I used to see across the valley thirty years ago defined by darkness and defining night ...

Old Man, Swimming

John Burnside, 4 August 2005

... When I was twenty years old, on days that were darker and brighter than now, I got up at six and swam fifty lengths every morning, steady and even, though not as precise, or as sure as the one other swimmer I passed, flowing back and forth, in the lit pool on Parker’s Piece: an old man, I thought at the time, with a gold to his skin that is only acquired over decades, his slicked hair silver, his bachelor’s eyes halfway from grey to blue, when we met in the changing rooms, silent and male, but never so much that it bothered him not to conceal a fleeting, and half-amused gleam of fellow feeling ...

Two Poems

John Burnside, 1 December 2005

... Orange The heaven of childhood had something to do with citrus: back in the coal towns, deep in a season of rain, or out on the farm roads, away from the dangerous world, where children came down from their attics, with sleep in their mouths, light on the kitchen walls on a Christmas morning and, under the tree, in their scarlet and matt-black wrappers, the newborn clementines that flaked and scaled like moths’ or angels’ wings between our fingers, then melted to pulp and a liquor that darkened our palms with the colour and scent of Jesus, raised from the dead and walking alone in the garden, untouched by the future, the light of the world returned, as he raises his hand to gather a fruit from the darkness and taste, once again, the blood-orange sap, the sweet at the heart of the bitter ...

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 ...

Two Poems

John Burnside, 26 January 2012

... At My Father’s Funeral The idea that the body as well as the soul was immortal was probably linked on to a very primitive belief regarding the dead, and one shared by many peoples, that they lived on in the grave. This conception was never forgotten, even in regions where the theory of a distant land of the dead was evolved, or where the body was consumed by fire before burial ...

Arthur Rimbaud at Scamblesby, 1873

John Burnside, 5 January 2017

... There is no evidence that Rimbaud ever visited Scarborough. Graham Robb At times, it feels like someone else’s dream, copious rain, when it comes, and the sense of Paraclete in every tongue of flame and hymnsong in the sky above the fen; and nightfall, in the gaps between the hills, is quick and unrelenting, like the mouth that glides out from the ditch, no voice to tell what symmetry it brings ...

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 ...

Two Poems

John Burnside, 6 August 2009

... On the Fairytale Ending Begin with the fend-for-yourself of all the loves you learned about in story books; fish-scale and fox-print graven on the hand forever   and a tiny hook-and-eye unfastened in the sweetmeat of a heart you thought would never grieve or come undone. May; and already it’s autumn: broken gold and crimson in the medieval beechwoods, where our shadows come and go, no darker than the figures in a book of changes, till they’re hexed and singled out for something chill and slender in this world, more sleight-of-hand than sorrow or safekeeping ...

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