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This review is taken from PN Review 242, Volume 44 Number 6, July - August 2018.

Cover of Still Life with Feeding Snake
Rory WatermanHappy Ever After

John Burnside, Still Life with Feeding Snake (Cape) £10
A significant proportion of John Burnside’s fourteenth collection is given over to cool considerations of time’s arrow, of what might have been but can’t be, though rarely straightforwardly. He takes a direct approach to nature red in tooth and claw, and makes no play of pretending we are separated from its laws, while also not denying our propensity to dream unblemished futures, often setting in contrast an ideal and a colder reality. The apparently personal ‘Sirens’ imagines the man a mother thought her child might become: ‘walking home from work – a designer, say – / he crosses the street to buy / some blue-veined or goat’s milk cheese and a bottle of Muscat […]. / Nothing can touch this happy-ever-after.’ The poem’s second section then leaps to a grim childhood memory, with an analytical lack of sentimentality that is both hearty and not afraid to be frankly offensive: a motorcycle accident victim dies on a roadside, and ‘I thought of him as a gift, his eyes dimming out / as I watched, at the quiet limit of my world’.

The middle part of the book contains several poems ostensibly or metaphorically concerned with life and death in space, and in particular the fates of some cosmonauts. ‘Blue’ recalls the deaths by asphyxiation of the Soyuz 11 crew in 1971, the only human fatalities we know to have occurred in space, again drawing parallels to what is presented as a personal history: ‘A late delivery, I sheltered for a time / in oxygen, my mother / certain that I would die, like the one before’. ‘Still Life with Lost ...

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