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This review is taken from PN Review 86, Volume 18 Number 6, July - August 1992.

ABSENT CHOIRS John Burnside, Feast Days (Secker and Warburg) £6

This new collection opens with an epigraph from Dante's Inferno; Ulysses's speech about the world 'sanza gente' (without people), that is 'di retro al sol' (behind the sun). This is from Ulysses's last voyage, in which he sights the Mountain of Purgatory, yet cannot reach it. It is a profoundly humanist, Catholic vision of the pre-Christian era, and as such appears to link in seamlessly with John Burnside's similarly visionary poetry of a post-Christian era.

Burnside's poetry sometimes seems to inhabit a world from which all archangels and handmaidens of the Lord have just departed, leaving the holy structures intact but uninhabited. His rooms are full of angel-shaped spaces, his exteriors resonate with the absence of heavenly choirs, and his poetry balances between sehnsucht and immanence in a manner that conjures the forgotten term 'miraculous'. His titles reflect this with wit and a kind of polysyllabic lucidity: 'The noli me tangere incident', 'Urphänomen'. 'Everything is explained by something that happened in childhood' and 'Anamnesis'. We are beginning to recognize his epithets; 'This Samuel Palmer garden', '… pear trees filled/with eucharistic fruit'. And we are beginning to know our way around his particular geography.

The poem 'Palestine' sets this up with its careful paradox: what was Palestine on our Biblical maps is Israel on our political ones. And like Palestine another sphere coexists with the banality of a world in which 'words … no longer/mean what they said'. This is equally the sphere of a Wordsworthian ...


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