Black Cat Bone, John Burnside, Cape Poetry, 66pp, £10 (paperback)

Black Cat Bone presents us with a liminal world conjured by the highly original play of religion, fairytale, art and superstition. The bone of a black cat was, as Burnside explains at the end of this his latest volume, a highly prized hoodoo talisman affording the owner success, invisibility and sexual prowess. More, here, is a world where we are taunted by the ‘not quite discerned, the not quite discernible’, a world where, through exploration of love, death, the ‘soul’, the ‘everafter’, we are caught, undecidedly and pleasurably, between presence and absence.

Presence counterbalances absence, with subtle menace, throughout the volume’s long opening poem, ‘Fair Chase’. Inextricable, the hunter and the hunted move between bliss and terror; the reader, in turn, is tantalised between the actual and the suggested. Immersed in the definite world evoked by: ‘falconers, rat catchers, deer-stalkers’, ‘snow’, ‘ice’, ‘rotting tyres’, ‘guns’ and ‘bullets’, and by definite actions: ‘I took a bullet/loaded it with care’, we are, simultaneously, among the lost, the forgotten, the fictional and the mythical – all that is elusive. The poet challenges ‘a god [he had] read about in books’, is aware of a presence ‘you find in a children’s album, a phantom thing’, he ‘never saw … clear’.

Each of the five sections of ‘Fair Chase’ concludes with lines which illustrate this evocative counterpoint. Respectively: ‘I was … companion to no one/alone in a havoc of signs’; ‘I pulled the trigger’; ‘all I could see was my hands’; ‘there were ghosts … I knew them by the sound the wind made when it worried at the shutters’; and in the last section where the poem’s climax, honed by poised repetition, leaves us imaginatively hovering between the actual and the all-but-missed:

Nobody lives here now, not even me,
and yet the house is mine – a net of dreams and phantoms
and that living animal
I followed through the woods …

where I am hunting, hunting even now,

hearing that cry
and turning my head,
for an echo.

With deft strokes, ‘Fair Chase’ prepares us, too, for the poems that follow. In the next section, ‘Everafter’, the poems draw on fairytale, song, the Bible, to reinvent and subvert the occluded ‘happily’ and/or ‘eternally’ that ‘everafter’ suggests. Nor is allusion to fairytale, song, myth, religion the exclusive province of any one of the sections. A compelling unity is achieved by connotation of image, word and rhythm. Thus, we are given the just-glimpsed but never clearly seen, unsettled and unsettling spirit that lightly inhabits the in-between metaphysical and physical states in many poems.
In ‘Fair Chase’, light is ‘candy-striped’. The unexpectedness of this description, arresting in context, evokes childhood, whose imprint, forgotten or memorably present, is a perpetual presence in Burnside’s work. Candy is literally lying on the grass in ‘Faith’, but ‘candy-striped’ also connotes the ‘marzipan doll’ in ‘Day of the Dead’. Although the tone is one of disappointment, associations of ‘sweetness’ are created in the musical and allusive ending, ‘sugarcraft and satin’.
Disappointment, memorably set in ‘Fair Chase’, is one of the themes which threads, at different levels, through many of the successive poems. As well as the repetition of ‘hunting, hunting’, Burnside repeats the phrase ‘but all I could find’ to emphasise the feeling of being let down. The reference to ink-wash following ‘but all I could find’ in ‘Fair Chase’ is inventively picked up by ‘Quink-blue current’ in ‘Disappointment’. A life promising fulfilment and pleasure becomes ‘lost, in the gaze of

others’. In ‘The Nightingale’ the bird sings and sings unheard in the first section, the narrator left ‘unsatisfied’ in the second. Through the power of negation, Burnside produces an abiding stark ordinariness and, by implication, disappointment in ‘Nativity’: ‘No gifts for me, no angel in the rafters.’ The narrator’s birth is marked only by (his/her?) mother’s ‘slack’ mouth and ‘darkness’; paradoxically, all is illuminated when ‘the midwife returns with a candle’. By the end of ‘Bird Nest Bound’, the weight of disappointment is emphatic as the speaker wakes ‘in the cage of my bones/ on the same cold ground’.

In many poems Burnside uses negative assertion to create presence: ‘whatever you should have been, you were never the one …’ (‘The Bride’); ‘not the dead we mourn … but something like the absence of ourselves …’ (‘The Listener’). Yet his is also a highly recognisable, specific landscape of presence: woods, meadows, water, trees, birds, fog, sunlight, rain, trains, houses and flowers. And, whilst this is true in his previous collections, Burnside has commented that after ‘trying to find a way of talking about whereof we cannot speak, this new book is about things that nobody can deny’.

However, it is, perhaps, this movement from the ‘whereof we cannot speak’, to the readily articulated that occasionally undermines the volume’s undoubted power. It is, for example, slightly jarring to find the cliché of ‘a white Christmas’ and a blunt reference to undeniable sciatica in the final poem, ‘From the Chinese’, even though by the end of it imagination and possibility triumph. Most notably, in ‘Down by the River’ (prefaced by Guillén’s epigram, its grey wall setting the tone) Burnside again achieves what he is aiming for: a murder ‘that nobody could deny’. In so doing, though, we are left, in the last line, with statement. The poem, with its own literal will, is thereby in danger of having what Keats despised: a design on us.

‘White Christmas’ does, of course, carry connotations of song, dream, a comforting sense of the past, ‘an old belonging’, something fairytale and, simultaneously, a longed-for belief, the insubstantial substances of Burnside’s poetry. The phrase is the final use of the possibly overused reference, ‘white’. Well-made in ‘Fair Chase’ where there is reference to ‘white’ as ‘the slow white of the river’, ‘the white of the sky’ and also the snow, it is a literal and metaphorical reference throughout.

Among other uses, it is a country ‘white as the snow’, the hyena’s mane, the houses ‘white and incomplete’ in a Flemish painting, ‘the white at the back of my mind’, and, in ‘Neoclassical’, becomes the symbolic epitome of the indiscernible: ‘now there is nothing but white’. Is it overdone, becoming by dint of repetitiveness an uncharacteristic heavy-handedness? Or, by virtue of the same, is it necessary as an all-encompassing symbol, contributing, significantly, to the volume’s unity? Like the narrator in the final poem, encountering the (beautifully evoked) ‘mud and thawglass’, we are more than ‘ready to be persuaded’ of its presence finally to affirm absence.

In lyrical, intimate idiom, Burnside dwells, hauntingly, in the heart’s long- held themes: loss, death, grief, love, faith, memory and childhood. All the reference to the past, to lost religion(s), to tradition and superstition, as well as the many arresting allusions to film, art, dream, eternity and song, summon not-quite-there but keenly sensed states of being. Black Cat Bone slips us spell-like into a breath-light world, between absence and presence, where we are consoled and inconsolable, defined ever after by ‘the tinnitus of longing’.

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