All in One Breath, John Burnside, Jonathan Cape, 2014, 96pp, £10 (paperback)

Terror, Toby Martinez de las Rivas, Faber, 2014, 80pp, £9.99 (paperback)

There is a new vitality in the current Scottish literary scene. The feeling is not of revival but rather of seeking for new pathways. Here, in a veteran and an ingénue, we have a microcosm of the poetic climate of Scotland at a pivotal moment.

John Burnside’s poetry is a poetry of (literal) reflections. He refers often to mirrors, especially the distorting funhouse ones (the implication being that all mirrors distort):

In a house with too many mirrors,
it’s hard to dream

We can never see ourselves, only a reverse image of the true self. The age-old quest for the truth proves necessarily elusive. The accepted need is to ask without surety of the question being heard, let alone answered:

A further reflection is evoked:

They say the dead still listen for a time

There is a secondary meaning in that line. The dead may require a particular moment before their final departure. The do not wait for eternity, they wait for a time. There may be ‘no forever’ in Burnside’s lapsarian metaphysic, but actual infinity can be demonstrated with a couple of looking glasses. Immortality, however, is for him too close to superstitious dread. His father’s funeral prompts childhood fears of spectral presences that evoke terror even in his adult mind. He is a poet for whom words offer prophetic utterance as symbols of unseen things, things that are imagined but not known. Their presence, however, is necessarily felt.

Burnside, for all that, evidently considers himself a poet of rational sensibility. The technique is restrained by a formality that directs his vision towards the truth he is seeking to tell. The clarity, simplicity even, is a device, an artful deception. The confession is aware of its public nature. Burnside’s candour serves to shape its expression to a purpose beyond itself. This is literature not psychotherapy. All One Breath is ordered and considered. Rather than random reflections, we are given a series of images, often to do with the end of life, with an end in view that is concerned with life rather than death (while acknowledging the closeness of each to the other.)

Like a number of his contemporaries, John Burnside finds resource in science, both in natural history and in experiment. The engagement of poetry with science can read, as it does here, as a projected possibility beyond the evident facts of existence. The need for a metaphysic persists among material things. Traditional faith was reduced in Burnside’s childhood to a raw, tribal loyalty. Poetry is not in itself the answer. Something more related to tangible fact is the requirement of a sceptical age.

Wright of Derby’s picture of the experiment with an air pump holds Burnside’s interest. There is the antiquarian quaintness, with the fusion of shyster and scientist in the experimenter’s demeanour. There is also the cold and callous fact of the bird whose life is sacrificed to demonstrate the quality of a vacuum.

According to Genesis, the first moment was a cosmic breath. Every life begins with a single breath. Breathing is the fundamental act of life. That is why singing seems so angelic, so close to the heart of the Universe. The heart is something no less real for being imagined rather than realized. If it were beyond the scope of our imagination it should not be available to utterance. We know we have angelic song. John Burnside is seeking, by explicit confession, to sing it.

Is this reasonable? It is, in Burnside’s view:

I think, if I tried, I could go back and sing again

He is recalling his days as a choirboy, a time of innocence tempered with the terrors of childhood, in particular a stern choirmaster threatening hellfire to those who would not sing as he wished. It does not take children long to see that adults are mad, or, at least, foolish in their conceits even when these are brutal.

John Burnside does not speak, or sing, as a child. He speaks for the child who remains within the man, and of the innocence and darkness in their inevitable and, to a poet, unavoidable presence. The final lines echo, perhaps consciously, the exquisite threnody that concludes James Joyce’s The Dead:

I never quite saw the point
of the life to come; back then it seemed
that, like as not, most everything runs on
as choir: all one; the living and the dead:
first catch, then canon; fugal; all one breath.

It is a modern conjecture, in science and art, that time is a conceit, and that eternity is now. If that is so then the afterlife is here with us. We create this ‘theatre of absence’, as Burnside names it.

All One Breath is published in the aftermath of immense public success for John Burnside as a poet. Expectations are thereby raised high, unenviably so. He can breathe again: this book does not disappoint. Burnside shows a mastery of his craft by the apparent ease which is very hard to achieve. There is more than craft here, of course: there is vision in the need to remember that becomes the desire to forgive. It is a forgiveness that does not forget. This poet’s remembering is a key to understanding.

Toby Martinez de las Rivas is a poet in the early stages of promise. Here, too, the expectation is high, for he is a poet discovered and mentored by Faber as part of the rising generation. Generous in its purpose, poetry is an unforgiving art to practice. It demands much. Poetry is the literature that looks the easiest to write. But the concentration of language is so intense that it is a difficult, almost impossible art. Language can feel so inadequate compared to the expressive powers of painting or music. At times it may seem to do no more than suggest.

Testament, written a little while ago but exceptionally apt to the recent winter flooding of Martinez’s home county of Somerset, returns us to Genesis as if its narrative was an everlasting condition rather than a mythic explanation of human development:

Also in time: the supernumerary rainbows stanchioned
in glassy shallows overflying both Huish and Langport
reassert their covenant

To speak of Noah’s Flood as happening in time is to affirm it as both an actual history and an immediate crisis. Flooding does not simply recall the Biblical account. It is that moment lived. The reference to actual places, and to undeniable catastrophe, makes a metaphor of reality and a metaphysic of the material world:

Beyond this room, and this fire, and this infant body
Stretched in abject stillness on the floor, lies nothing
But the failed State, arming itself against consolation.

The reference here is to Blake whose portrayal of damnation evokes the terrors in all-too-familiar accounts of willed, political violence. The terror is not out there from hooded strangers with alien allegiances: it is within the world we have made (and unmade). Martinez in Blakean mood invokes Jerusalem, the lost home of the exile that may be built again.

Exile, however, is the human condition. Blake’s vision may be Promethean, with the dangers implied therein. But Martinez is among those impelled to speak of realizing that vision ‘sprung from earth, newly risen, individuated’. Taking on the prophetic role is to set oneself at odds with the certainties of this and every other age. The individuated vision’s alternative to general experience may serve to leaven the social mood. Harmony contains more than one part. Beyond this room is another room resembling this one, but as an image in the glass. We see ourselves as others see us. It is possible to go back and sing again. The same words have different meanings. There is a counterpoint to the melody, not heard until now.


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