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This review is taken from PN Review 240, Volume 44 Number 4, March - April 2018.

Cover of Still Life with Feeding Snake
John MuckleBrevity, eternity

John Burnside, Still Life with Feeding Snake (Cape);
Roy Fisher, Slakki; New and Neglected Poems (Bloodaxe)
These two poets, a generation apart, seem an oddly assorted pairing. But both – the younger a Catholic, the older resolutely secular – grapple with the thinginess of things, and the tragedy in human stories, and try to make something larger of it; to construct something upon which to rejoice, in T.S. Eliot’s phrase from ‘Ash Wednesday’. For Burnside this impulse is religiously motivated; for Fisher the necessity springs from circumstance. He came (so he thought) from a land of ashes.

John Burnside’s poetry bristles with narrative and drama, is alive with vivid observations and turns of vocabulary, much of it supplied by the ready-made empyrean of his inherited faith, here often crystallised around the figure of his mother, as ‘script and ideal’, a Stevensian idea of order. He is an allegorical writer, a storyteller, and it is on this level, despite his passing beauties of language – the level of narratives and how we read them – that meaning springs from his deftly managed syntax. He understands delay, closure, and how to withhold both of these things in order to scratch his reader’s itch for them. ‘The Beauties of Nature and the Wonders of the World We Live In’ sets the story of Saul’s blindness and recovery against another story of a man, blind from birth, who regains his sight only to be disappointed by the actuality of the visible world compared to his imagining of it. He has slowly to learn how to accept and appreciate the look of things, just as Saul ...


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