John Burnside’s “Poetics of Failure”: A Havoc of Signs

by Andrew F. Giles


Scottish poet John Burnside (b. 1955) was the recently-lauded winner of the Forward. and T. S. Eliot. prizes in the UK. He is a poet who wreaks havoc with the fabric of narrative. His poetry contains codes of cultural and temporal magnitude that are, all the same, often invisible to us. We cannot perceive, or understand, what we know. Burnside outlines only mysteries and quests, “a perfect thing, not what was always there,/ but something we knew without knowing” (‘Being and Time’, 2002). Indeed, the man who suggests that “poetry is central to our culture, and […] is capable of being the most powerful and transformative of the arts” (The Telegraph newspaper, 2012.), is also a man who questions culture itself – or our reckoning of it, which he represents with a havoc of signs.

Burnside thus confronts order, and reassembles and reimagines it on his poetic quest. In 2011, he tackled the misconstrued sense of celestial order in a ‘God-haunted’ world, in an article for The New Humanist., by saying: “our main obligation now is to […] playfully but in all seriousness step out on to the tightrope and walk”. However, the powerful engagement with questioning and mystery that Burnside evokes on his quest seems to step outside of an ordered sense of time, and reality.

It makes sense for Burnside to declare, in his recent collection Black Cat Bone, “I only watch reruns now.” The regard of the poet rests upon the mystery of the human experience (the ‘tightrope’), and understands this experience is caught in a strange state of concealment, repetition and apparition. The image Burnside sees caught in the ‘daguerreotype’ is “like someone who’s been there forever” (‘Late Show’). Perhaps the image always has been, although we might not recognize it. It looks like “a gap on the stairs where something is gone”; “the tracks of the mule deer come and go,/ though nothing is there when I go to look” (Insomnia in Southern Illinois’). The traces are, as British poet Helen Mort has suggested, “the world… expressed as its own negative”, or as Burnside puts it, images “making perfect/ phantoms of themselves/ in their own steam” (‘Weather Report’). Burnside’s phantoms are numerous and call to us from somewhere in time.

In 1841, Margaret Fuller discussed Goethe’s limitations: “a too determined action of the intellect… blinded him for the rest of his life… [He] did not in one life complete his circle”. Wai Chee Dimock makes a many-pronged argument on the understudied deep cycles that connect writers and artists across time in Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time. Her book extrapolates on Fuller’s ambiguous statements, exploring the “incomplete circle” drawn by writers such as Goethe. Dimock imagines a much deeper matrix of poetics that, although unfinished in a human lifetime, is continuously worked on and revised throughout a huge expanse of ‘deep time’:

“A poetics operating on such a scale makes authorship too large to be borne by any one person. It is borne, instead, by the longitudes and latitudes of the planet and the full length of its recorded history. This is the deep field of time. Asymmetrical to our biological life span, it makes the predictable failure of each of us the condition for our ongoing life."

John Burnside recognizes this condition. His latest collection, Black Cat Bone, reveals itself familiar with Dimock’s oblique, whispered genealogy. Burnside writes that “(b)efore the songs I sang there were the songs/ they came from” (‘Death Room Blues’). In his essay ‘Strong Words’ from 2000., Burnside makes this genealogy even clearer: we are “part of a rich and complex narrative”; we are human, but we more truthfully express ourselves as spirits, and as such “we also live in eternity, and are stateless… we belong, as it were, to the game itself”. This ‘eternity’, Dimock’s boundless, borderless canon of deep time, brims with the spirits – or ghosts, monsters and hidden beasts – that make up our narratives. Burnside confronts this space with a host of questions, a host of secretive and mysterious journeys that seem to end in failure or darkness – must end in death – but which are illuminated with a sparse beauty that looks like hope.

The landscape of poetry for Burnside is a palimpsest where spirit worlds also appear. He travels through these states from one moment to the next and presents us with the curves of deep time’s uncompleted circles. That is to say, his authorship resembles more closely the work of a curator. But Burnside is a curator of impossible journeys and eternal quests, of ends that are beginnings, of toil, of savage gods and ghosts who must be confronted. Of time, of a sphere that is ancient, bewildering, wise, ambiguous and dangerous.

Burnside’s hunter in ‘The Fair Chase’ pursues

a phantom thing, betrayed by smoke or rain,

or glimpsed through a gap in the fog, not quite discerned,
not quite discernible: a mouth, then eyes
then nothing.

The hunter’s quest is intensely lyrical as he forces his way through “ceresin and chrism… billhooks and sickles… gunsmoke and cyan… stunted brassicas and rotting tyres… yew-drupes and windfall holly.” But the rich, pungent landscape of the poem, whilst enveloping the narrator and reader in a cloying sense of place, remains a spirit world; the hunter is “alone in a havoc of signs”. The signs only point one way, however – to the chase. The hunter is passionate about his quest; he loads his gun and aims it “with an intent that felt like love”, ready to send his quarry into “the life/ beyond”. However, once he finally takes aims and shoots, Burnside leaves us reeling. The page ends, the sequence is left hanging in a void. Framed by ambiguous time in the ancient reek of the woods, thinking of his father and his father before him, Burnside’s hunter inhabits a muffled, inexorable landscape. Even the rapids are “that slow white out by the river” where someone dies every year.

The questions remain. What is the hunter’s quarry, if indeed there is anything there at all? What ghost is Burnside summoning? The hunter, we realize, is chasing specters, on a “search for something I could never name”. His quest propels him forward, “crossing the space” and continuing his search; after the hunt he wanders lost in foreign woods and a “net of dreams and phantoms”. He feels he has lost something, that his quest has failed somehow. He is a ghost himself; “nobody lives here now, not even me”.

The title of the poem hints at the quest as “failure” – the chase is ‘fair’ – balanced – neither hunter nor hunted are alive or dead. Yet, as Burnside writes in ‘Strong Words’, the poet seeks “a transcendence of the idea victory-defeat”. Burnside grasps a rather more elusive truth – that these spirits moving through the poem, or the reader, have mistaken their quest. The unfinished end of their circle finds only “an echo.” The most we can expect on our journeys is a reverberation that “is not heard, seen/ but felt”, something intangible that dissipates “before I can think to say/ it was never there”. The so-called ‘poetics of failure’ suggest a deep understanding of the cycle at play here. Burnside’s ‘game’ is a quest that has no surmountable end, but a whisper and flash of spectral faces, furs, eyes and bodies that at best may be seen as “a glimpse/ of something/ at my back”. To paraphrase Jacques Derrida, Burnside finds something to comprehend, but realizes it is incomprehensible.

This haunting and elusive vision of truth, and its ultimate death and eternal life (the circularity of deep time) is Burnside’s religion. It is also literature’s ‘religion’, in the sense that the spirit of the unfinished haunts all literary works: “the only gift is knowing we belong to nothing” (‘Creaturely’). The gods of Burnside’s poetry are hidden or intangible. His hunter “gazed down… to where a god… stone-hard in his womb… lay waiting for a gaze to curse with knowledge… I… dared him, from that unreflecting world,/ to pull me through in one bright flash of rage…” (‘The Fair Chase’). The hunter confronts this time a kind of bleak infinity, where there is “no witness/ nothing to remember”. Gods are cruel and distant, but beckon the reader even so. Are they gods? Burnside misrecognizes images – images that “make me think of something in a book” (‘The Fair Chase’), “birds that look like friends I had in school” (‘Late Show’), a journey home that is “like the last few/ pages of a 50s story book/ / where someone is walking home/ to the everafter” (‘Disappointment’). The masking and unmasking of images seems symbolic of Burnside’s attitude towards religion and spirituality, which in the ‘real’ world is a confusion of smoke and mirrors. Burnside goes far deeper, and is far subtler about it. We knew the journey would always end in failure – “it’s never what we wanted, the everafter/ we asked for something else” (‘Notes Towards An Ending’). But Burnside formulates, and allows us as readers to formulate, questions. They are sometimes “idealized, hazy at best” (‘Faith’), but they allow us a “moment’s pause for utter disbelief”, a chance to be stunned, surprised, uplifted.

The liminality in Burnside’s poetry resides in this stunning landscape of reimagination, of recharge and recall, but is only able to inscribe itself in traces or trails of memory and feeling upon the landscape. British poet Helen Mort recently questioned the term ‘liminal’ in relation to Burnside’s poetry, in her article Blood and Narrative: the synaesthetic world., calling it “dissatisfyingly vague”. The temporal sphere, however, and the ghosts of memory, are purposefully vague. They are “fuzzed/ daguerreotypes/ of motion” (‘Amnesia’). We mourn “the absence of ourselves/ from our own lives” (‘The Listener’). This is an exact, tight description of the vagueness, the spectral nature, of time and memory. Burnside’s poetry is a maze of in-between, hidden and masked spaces, and more importantly it uses these spaces to formulate its questions, questions which often have no answers. The charged space of the question, the echo and reverberation that we meet on our quests and journeys through these poems, is therefore indeed liminal. Burnside knows a place
where you cannot help but think

of kinship, at that point where snow begins
on some black road you thought was yours alone,
made bright and universal, while you listen.

It is a space that recognizes the ghosts and ancestors of time (and literature, perhaps); an unfinished hint of future on the ‘black road’ also reveals itself. Mort’s knowledge in the field of poetry and neuroscience is far from liminal, and led her to an exacting scientific focus on synaesthesia in Burnside’s poetry, and her dislike for the term seems mostly academic. However, Burnside’s poetry occupies its marginal post necessarily. His work of expressing the unfinished more often than not leads to “one/ wide/ incognito” (‘Amnesia’) where figures appear and disappear in the mist and snow.

Burnside’s inscription into a genealogy of spectral voices gives us three things: an insight into the long literary history of the world, our human reaction to it and a refreshed definition of failure. The poetics of failure confront the ghosts of the past and speak with them. Derrida suggested in his book Specters of Marx that the ambiguous and unfinished cycles of our genealogy should allow a poet like Burnside to feel, and express, in Derrida’s words, “the nocturnal noise of… concatenation, the rumbling sound of ghosts chained to ghosts”. In Burnside’s ‘everafter’ not only do we confront the vast expanse of time, but we are allowed to come to terms with it, despite its ambiguity. It’s hard to comprehend; it is “bright and universal.” It is a wide swathe of “history and color” (‘The Soul As Thought Experiment’). But in this space of “nothing to see” there is, paradoxically “…the hare in flight, the enormous// beauty of it stark against the mud/ and thawglass on the track, before/ it darts away, across the open fields// and leaves me dumbstruck, ready to be persuaded” (‘From The Chinese’). Burnside’s poetry is a variety of flashes of light, muffled sounds and images that illuminate a dark, wild and cavernous landscape, populated with ghosts of nature and memory.

In the words of Stevie Smith (with her usual sleight-of-hand flippancy), Burnside is shown to be rather more than the sum of his physical and temporal possibilities: “All Poetry has to do is make a strong communication. All the poet has to do is listen. The poet is not an important fellow. There will always be another poet”. Burnside’s poetry recognizes the enormity of its task in the vastness of history; it nods gently and tries to understand. It recognizes redemption in the heart of failure.