Literature: Black Cat Bone by John Burnside
Having previously expressed qualms about the judgements of literary prizes, Charlotte Keith is presently surprised by this year's winner of the Forward Prize for Poetry
by Charlotte Keith
Friday 18th November 2011, 15:15 GMT
Having previously expressed qualms about the judgments of literary prizes, I approached the winner of this year’s Forward Prize for Poetry warily. With an un-translated Latin quotation from the psalms opening the first sequence, ‘The Chase’, I was already formulating discontented grumblings about unnecessary displays of erudition, affectation, self-importance… Let me make it clear: I did not want to like this collection. And then I started reading.
the thing he kills
- or so the children whisper, when they crush
a beetle or a cranefly in the dust
feeling the snuff of it bleed
through the grain of their fingers’
Black Cat Bone works as a cohesive whole, with the poems informing each other in surprising ways. This collection is more than a convenient chronological group of poems: together they create a dark world of fairy tales, and fear, and gloomy woods and lost (sometimes murdered) love, and bitterness and pain slowly turning into beauty.
The long opening sequence, ‘The Fair Chase’ narrates the pursuit of a mysterious creature ‘glimpsed through a gap in the fog, not quite discerned/not quite discernible’. This hunted animal – or presence, or spirit – then becomes the hunter, stalking the reader across the collection, reappearing in various guises: ‘a glimpse/of something/at my back//not heard, or seen/but felt/the way some distant//shiver in the barley registers’. The more macabre elements here – take the title sequence, where Burnside imagines drowning the beloved and burying her in the woods – have fallen foul of some critics, but for me, Burnside’s restraint and technical mastery avert any sense of melodrama. The death of the elusive love-object, ‘more song than woman’, echoes the earlier shooting of the creature ‘with an intent that felt like love’ – alarming but alluring.
One reviewer described the collection’s poem sequences as ‘dreamscapes’, which captures their uncanny, haunting quality, but doesn’t do justice to Burnside’s linguistic precision. The sheen of a corpse is ‘the curdled glaze of everafter on my father’s skin’; a glade is ‘candy-striped with light and frosted grass’. Burnside’s brilliance at putting his poetic finger on things – the faith, I suppose, that he could put anything into words – makes what he chooses to leave undefined all the more interesting.
The poet takes influences as diverse as fairy-tale and folklore, voodoo, blues lyrics, the Song of Songs, and transposes them into his own unique voice: ‘before the songs I sang there were the songs/ they came from’, he confesses, ‘patent shreds of Babel, and the secret/Nineveh of back rooms in the dark’.
This is an eerie, disturbing, and frankly marvelous collection: lyric poetry of the highest order. Yes, I was troubled by the fact that such aesthetic pleasure could be gained from reading about corpse bridegrooms, amnesia, and hyenas.
Black Cat Bone is one of the best new poetry collections I’ve come across in a long time. For once, the advertising spiel on the cover, which promises ‘unnverving poems that hang in the memory like a myth or song’, holds true.