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This review is taken from PN Review 108, Volume 22 Number 4, March - April 1996.

JOHN BURNSIDE, Swimming in the Flood (Cape) £7.00
ANTHONY HOWELL, First Time in Japan (Anvil) £6.95

I sometimes wonder how we'd write if we'd never read. In their different ways, the latest collections from Burnside and Howell excel when they follow their own nose, rather than someone else's.

John Burnside's originality is not in his style but in his purpose. The various themes of his fifth collection, Swimming in the Flood, are haunted by a ghost-argument about perception. This is the belief that human perception inevitably involves construction. Each character and event is explicitly constructed by the narrative that describes it. Single poems and sequences are held together not by the vertebrae of plot but by the various perspectives of the people involved, the surrounding context. The language is one of delicate accumulation, building around and towards lines of piercing clarity. Frequently visual and idiomatic, it is accompanied by a precise understanding of its own delicacy, that nerve just above understatement. This collection deliberately sequences its poems, alluding to its argument without forcing it. As such it should be read whole, rather than dipped into.

The starting point for this enquiry is the unavoidable plurality of perspective in a modern context. In the title poem, Swimming in the Flood', a survivor can only comprehend his loss through its portrayal on the news afterwards, and snatches of dreams. His firsthand witness is redundant. Nor can he give faces to those who drowned out of camera. Throughout the ...

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