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This review is taken from PN Review 118, Volume 24 Number 2, November - December 1997.


Although the violence that inundated many of the poems in John Burnside's Swimming in the Flood (1995) has subsided in his most recent collection, these new poems do not map a serene world. While Burnside's vision may have become less harrowing, it has grown more haunting. The poems in A Normal Skin are disturbing and turbulent in their depictions of spiritual and physical deterioration, yet restrained and linguistically spare. What makes Burnside's poetry extraordinary is his ability to empathize with the victims he portrays without resorting to maudlin language or melodramatic outbursts. In 'Road Kill', for example, he writes,

On the way home, I hit
a rabbit or a fox-cub,
in the dark.
The snapped bone echoed for miles
in the taut suspension:
ripples of tooth and nail
in the meat of my spine.

Rather than the young girls of Swimming in the Flood, animals are the victims in these poems. Burnside presents us with, among other dead and decaying creatures, a 'gutted fish', 'an aftermath of feathers', and

a young buck pouring from the roof,

the ankles crosed, the last thick cloud of
hanging around the muzzle and groin.

Burnside's empathy knowingly flirts with self-apotheosis, but his Catholicism is constantly being questioned and transmuted. In 'Agoraphobia', he presents a refracted via purgativa: 'My whole world is all you refuse'. And in other poems, Simon of ...

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