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.
In Burnside’s debut book, The Hoop, the first world is treated at greater length than is subsequently the case. It is evoked by a prematurely aged, exhausted voice which derives from the Movement: ‘We live against the silence of/imagined bears’; ‘We have been lost/in our house for years.’ Adult responsibilities are represented as almost unbelievably dull. In The Society of the Poem Jonathan Raban argued that a significant number of post-Movement poets accepted the daily rituals of the postwar world as nearly sufficient for the inner life: ‘The imprints of the same mass images, the same commuting time-schemes, the same communal hopes and neuroses, have given our lives so many shared versions of order and metaphor that the poets’ work is almost done for them.’ Burnside’s work is a sharp reaction to such acceptance, and it is why he allows his second world with its fantasies of boyhood and adolescence to overrun the supposedly sensible domain of adults. Accumulating a large series of symbols – angels, mermaids, corpses – whose meanings are implacably private, his second world attempts to blot out the mass images to which we are half-addicted. If we could picture a person whose only sources of knowledge were, say, the tabloids and MTV, they would surely find Burnside’s work incomprehensible. But it is not just the background hum of the media which he attempts to shut out. Other ‘shared versions of order and metaphor’ that belong to the Land of the Grown-Ups – from pub quizzes to weddings, from phone-bills to elections – are either completely excluded or else drained of all significance. Burnside investigates his life not by exploring such categories as religion, politics and sociology but by ignoring them.
Because of their reliance on landscape and adventure, children’s books – Watership Down, The Lord of the Rings, Swallows and Amazons – often contain maps. It is tempting to imagine Burnside’s second world, which is perhaps more akin to Lord of the Flies, drawn out on parchment: this is My House, over here is the Wall of the Angel, there is the Gargoyle in the Ivy, and across the river is the Corpse of the Weasel. All the symbolic points, humming within walking distance of each other, are insulated from the world beyond. Since he likes mystery, this environment is given the melting turbulence of an Impressionist landscape – poems in A Normal Skin, for instance, speak of ‘a cold rain fuzzing the trees’, ‘ghost rain fuzzing the leaves’,‘the midsummer distance where towns dissolve’, ‘this washed infinity’, ‘the blur/of bricks and glass’, ‘this blur of heat’. Objects are often lit with a mysterious gleam or shimmer, as if to show they have an energy and a life of their own.
Against all this – and preventing the whole enterprise turning into an aesthete’s daydream – he likes to play off a tone of sober inquiry. The Dumb House in particular is full of the rhetoric of science. It is not, however, the intellectual arguments or processes of science which interest him so much as its emotional contours. In particular it is the act of discovery which excites him rather than the more tedious processes of observing and recording. Science plays the same role in his writing as it does in The X-Files or Jurassic Park – it provides a pretext for moments of perhaps horrifying, but ultimately thrilling, revelation. In Burnside’s poems there are many such moments – every can is full of worms, every box contains a Jack.
Hovering on the border between the physical and the metaphysical, the intellectual drive of his work could be described as an attempt to look behind life, in the way that one might remove a clockface and scrutinise the quietly wriggling mechanisms. At this level, the poems often record curiously literal attempts to see and touch Life Itself. The seventh part of the sequence ‘A Process of Separation’, for instance, deals with his typical fascination for an animal corpse, as a knacker takes it apart:
I’ve watched him skin a carcass in the yard:
skilful and unrepentant, drenched in blood,
he scattered the wet remains across the earth
and entered them, becoming what he killed.
Once I reached in and touched the smoking lungs,
the barrel of the ribs, the cooling heart.
Like the conclusion to ‘Aphasia in Childhood’, the combination of sensuousness and fear here is reminiscent of the conclusion to Heaney’s ‘Death of a Naturalist’. This is not uncommon in his work. Quite often, individual lines, stanzas, whole sections of his poems are strongly reminiscent of other writers – in particular he owes a lot to Hughes, Heaney, Longley and Hill. Nevertheless, because of the strength and consistency of his vision, the poems as a whole belong to him: they are locally derivative but globally original.
Burnside’s manner probably reached its peak in his fifth book, Swimming in the Flood. There one finds many of his best poems, the title-poem, ‘Science’, the first and last parts of the sequence ‘Burning a Woman’, ‘Parousia’ and ‘Hypothesis’. The latter poem concludes with some of his most memorable and mysterious lines:
waking will sometimes resemble
the sudden precision of gunshots out in the field,
when the woods are immersed
in a clear and improbable dawn,
and traces everywhere of what is risen:
bonemeal and horsehair, a fingerprint etched in the dust,
whatever it is that fades when we enter a room,
leaves only the glitter of brass, and the gloved noise of water.
In that weirdly effective final cadence, ‘the gloved noise of water’, Burnside captures his obsession with containers (like the body), with hidden but active presences (water in a pipe), and also with the scientific handling of things (scientists in gloves).
In Swimming in the Flood, the many revisions, the obsessive treatment of similar subject-matter seems to harden into a very successful style. Formally, it is more adventurous than the other books: there are more experiments with the third-person pronoun, with masks and with compressed narrative. A Normal Skin, by contrast, seems a transitional book, in which Burnside shows signs of wanting to engage with the adult world on something other than his own terms. This appears to cause an uncertainty in his manner – there are a noticeable number of poems about neighbours, and fragile attempts to characterise the domestic arrangements of a normal, grown-up life, particularly in the big sequence ‘Epithalamium’, but also in poems like ‘Agoraphobia’ and ‘Snake’. The quotation from Plato at the beginning of the book seems apposite: ‘And if the soul, too, my dear Alcibiades, is to know itself, it must surely look into a soul.’
If Swimming in the Flood is Burnside’s best book, The Dumb House is his worst. His desire to steer away from wider social realities causes greater problems in the novel form. Most of the book’s drawbacks, in terms of plot, characterisation and dialogue, can be traced to the artificially insulated world that he wants to create. The Dumb House is a first-person narrative told by Luke, an intelligent but antisocial young man, strangely dominated by his mother, who is obsessed by the way language is, or is not, acquired. He is especially fascinated by mute individuals. His obsessions draw him into the orbit of several maladjusted characters. One of these is a homeless girl called Lillian, with whom he has an affair. As we might expect from one of Burnside’s creations, Lillian bears twins – and then dies. This gives Luke, who becomes increasingly detached from social norms, the opportunity to perform a perverse experiment whereby the twins are raised in an environment sealed off from human speech. Isolated from other people, the only stimulation which the narrator affords them is that of music. Luke draws much of the inspiration for his experiment from a story told to him by his mother about Akbar the Mughal, an emperor who caused two children to be brought up in a house, the Dumb House, where all the servants were mute.
Many of Luke’s obsessions – with corpses, with language, with a fantasy landscape – are those pursued in Burnside’s poems. Although Luke, who shows himself capable of murder and torture, evidently cares little for moral norms, he is surprisingly zealous about promoting one cultural norm: the cause of science. It is on this subject that the narrator sounds least like Burnside, occasionally lapsing into the kind of Mad Scientist mode we might find in a Hammer Horror film. ‘Throughout history, the important discoveries were made by those who ventured upon the unspeakable’; ‘for a moment, I had looked into life itself, and I knew that, one day, I would discover its essence’; ‘They are the ones who talk about ethics, but they do not possess the true scientific ethic, which is total commitment.’ And so on.
Since Burnside’s sensibility is more taken by words than by sentences – it being easier to attach private meanings to the former than it is to the latter – the novel has weak dialogue. Because he is not interested in rendering conversations exactly, characters rarely sound real. When one of his vagrants says, ‘the milky bars are on me,’ for instance, the words strike us like a thunderbolt. Such tendencies are reflected in his other books. ‘Love Poem’ from The Myth of the Twin is one of his many Heaneyesque moments, where the emphasis (à la Wintering Out) is on the iconic quality of words: ‘to name things for the beauty of the sounds:/uisge, aran; oidhche; gealach; teine’. The novel, which is supposedly about the acquisition of language, seems to be entirely uninterested in the fact that language largely reflects the existence, and history, of a wider community.
The plot is rudimentary. There are, for example, too many deaths which serve the purpose of removing characters from the narrative when they are no longer required. Just after meeting Lillian, the narrator, who temporarily loses sight of her, reflects: ‘All I knew was that I would find her again some day, because that was what was intended.’ Or rather because that is what the author intends. All the people in the book are as rootless and untraceable as possible – vagrants, misfits who have no inconvenient relatives. This means that the plot doesn’t have to take into account a potentially complicated and complicating social background. There are no interconnections, no larger patterns. From the start, it is clear that the characters are moving towards some end at which Burn-side eagerly wants to arrive, and that the early events in the novel are just so many distasteful preliminaries.
We are never told how Luke’s father earns his money, we know only that sometimes he is away on business and that his wife is a kind of exotic parasite. Luke’s source of income is even more unclear (presumably he has inherited it). He has no obvious trade or special skill and he seems entirely unbothered by this. Whenever he wants to perform a technical task, he simply goes to the local library, bones up on the topic and then applies the information (most improbably, given his interest in the soul, he seems to read no philosophy – but then that might get the author into a historical discussion). By the end of the book, for instance, he has read enough medical textbooks to be able to perform a laryngotomy. Everything, as in a dream, is somehow to hand: tape machines and video recorders and surgical masks, whatever he needs to further his experiment. The book, like any fantasy of control, approaches ever closer to the point of being frictionless.
In relation to such a fantasy, Burnside, like Cronenberg in Crash and like countless advertising agencies, eroticises automobiles: cars insulate us from our environment, while providing suggestive visual stimulation. The narrator in The Dumb House responds to the death of his mother by embarking on a series of long car journeys: ‘I managed to create an illusion of floating, of being detached from the human world, a casual visitor, not necessarily of the same species.’ The word ‘floating’ also provides the title for one of the poems about cars in A Normal Skin, while two further poems deal with animals that he runs over on the road.
In a way, The Dumb House is supposed to work by demonstrating how close the author is to being a psychopath, when it might have worked better if he had demonstrated just how far away he is from being one. As attractive as Burnside’s unconventionality is, it is less interesting than his conventionality. As a writer, he dearly wants to avoid the workaday world (who can blame him?), but in doing so he neglects the fact that our dreams are partly based on the frustrations and distractions it provides. The poems in A Normal Skin show him starting to recognise this. It is by examining and dissecting society that he will really get under our skin.
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