Three Poems

John Burnside

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.

The Wisdom of Insecurity

Not wanting to die was another universal constant,
it seemed.
J. Robert Oppenheimer

Place names are bleeding slowly from my mind
till nothing is left but

Uruguay – which someone told me once
means ‘river of birds’

in the language of those who were killed
to make it ours.

I think of the symbols they made
on slices of doeskin or bark when they went

upriver, as we all do when defeat
is casually dishonoured by the ones

who tricked us, flag-white egrets in the trees
flailing from branch to branch as the boat slides past,

but silent, like a person who has learned
to do without the self as worthy foe,

settling, instead, for something in the night
that tracks him from afar, some faint device

unspooling in an empty Nissen hut,
the data insufficient to predict

a future he could happily imagine,
no universal constant, no dark matter,

only a spill of cipher across the floor,
mile after mile of wavelength, feigning desire.

First Footnote on Zoomorphism[*]

It seems we have said too little about
the heart, per se,

how it sits in its chambered nub
of grease and echo,

listening for movement in the farthest
reed beds – any feathered thing will do,

love being interspecific, here,
more often than we imagine.

If anything, I’d liken us to certain
warblers, less appealing in the wild

than how we’d look
in coloured lithographs,

yet now and then, I’m on the point of hearing
bitterns, at the far edge of the lake,

that cry across the marshes like the doom
you only get in books, where people die

so readily for love, each heart becomes
a species in itself, the sound it makes

distinctive, one more descant in the dark,
before it disappears into the marshes.

[*] 1. Attribution of animal form or nature to a deity or superhuman being. 2. Imitation or representation of animal forms in decorative art or symbolism. (The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary)