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Catherine Woodward
John Burnside "Gift Songs"
Published by Cape Ł9.00

‘To live here is to wait for messengers’ -

- Is the overhanging rule of Gift Songs, John Burnside’s wonderfully evanescent tenth poetry collection. Here we see Burnside waiting for the spectacular to unfold from the ordinary; we watch him ‘wait for messengers’ through his touchably vivid imagery and masterful manipulation of colour in poetic but often eloquently simple verse, at all times the collection carries a sense of being present on the earth and at the same time – being not at all grounded to it.
A theme of fading and appearing permeates Gift Songs, a running sense that at any moment the bottom could drop out the world and quite possibly, you could sink into another one altogether. In the everyday places and moments that Burnside describes (walks along harbors, towns, late night drives) leavings and appearings come from all places and at all points, the ‘Arctic Fox’ at the road side, the flash of ‘cornflower blue’ in the headlamps. Burnside’s poetry tunes into those almost childlike premonitions and superstitions, felt at the most inexplicable moments in life, those sudden feelings of ‘something’ that are shrugged off and disregarded so often.
In Burnside’s vigil for annunciation, the reader receives a strange impression of blurring, as if what the poet is waiting for is always floating on the edge of vision, just barely seen like a fleeting portent. In this mystic idea the powers of the spiritual and the mundane are interactive with one another, moving through each other; Burnside’s keen eye for detail has managed to fog the line between the two, making anything possible. Although, this image of waiting on the fleetingly seen is painfully sad, expressing a deep longing and tenacious hopefulness that may never find what it is looking for.
Much like the work of Ted Hughes, in Gift Songs Burnside displays a strong connection with the world and powers of the animal, as if fleeting glimpses of mice, sea birds, and those nameless things that dart across roads at night, carry some part of the message he has been waiting to hear. The poet displays a great understanding and deep empathy with the powers of nature, communicating a spirituality that is highly thoughtful and profound. But perhaps even more enthralling is the mystery of what that message is; certainly it must be some encoded lost transmission from ‘the silence of the dead’, an encouragement or inspiration from the other side of death which Gift Songs muses upon so eloquently. Nevertheless, Burnside hides the nature of this divine annunciation from his reader, allowing them to imagine their own otherworldly message.
After nine books, readers of John Burnside are treated to that same quiet and cautiously observant voice that colours his poetry; exploring the art and the purpose behind waiting, and dipping slowly in and out of the world with an ever present awareness of magic.