Hoodoo Man Blues

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John Burnside’s forthcoming collection Black Cat Bone explores various poetic traditions, eventually finding its way back home. Burnside will read at the Stanza Festival.


“To think through things, that is the still life painter’s job – and the poet’s: Why should we be born loving the world? We require again and again these demonstrations.”
-Mark Dotty, Oysters and Lemons

John Burnside’s new collection, Black Cat Bone, is constantly meditating upon things, old discarded memories, moments of the past which linger and haunt the time present. The words of the poems fixate on objects, decisions and indecisions. Lost loves. Forgotten sensations. His images are a rich profusion of intimate experiences recollected in tranquillity; the love of Scotland’s land and the silent loneliness of a roaming Romantic intermingled with the cool, detached poignancy of a 20th century American poet and the melancholy of a blues musician. All the while, John Burnside remains a contemporary Scottish writer.

In an article for the Tate ETC magazine, Burnside discusses an encounter with Kurt Schwitters’ death certificate and how this artefact realised much of the making-strange of the man’s work. He also discusses a captivation with the mystery of No-Man’s Land: “the no-man’s land between the real and fantasy – the mystery in the commonplace – the uncommonness of the commonplace.” With an astute attention and sensitivity to the world around him, Burnside uncovers the pleasure and strangeness of a familiar landscape.

It is necessary to take journeys – between places or in the mind – to rediscover your homeland, your own mind. Thus, despite Burnside’s status as a Scottish poet, he co-opts the vocabulary and rhythm of both twentieth-century American and Spanish writers. The lines flow with an unstoppable drift, reminiscent of Wallace Stevens’ works. They cascade through the poem and settle on objects and unfinished moments, thinking through them as a still-life artist would:

“where someone is walking home,
to the everafter,
touched with the smell of the woods and the barberry
shadows where the boy he left behind
Is standing up to his waist in a Quink-blue current…”

The poem is titled ‘Disappointment’. The voice we hear is driving through out of the rain, into an open sky, to see swallows skim over the road “like the last pages of a 50’s story book.” He speaks in vocabulary of the dry and dusty American land, the drawl of Southern Blues musicians, who sing in a tonal register suffused with unresolved tensions and melancholy. Burnside’s words at first seem strange and exotic, but are derived from the Scottish landscape: “ceresin”, “vellum”, “chrism”, describing the moon as a “codling”. The words are pleasurable to read aloud and he revels in the auditory sensations they produce.

“Intimacy, says the phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard, is the highest value[…]
Something about it rings true, finally – that what we want is to be brought into relation, to be inside, within[…]. A powerful countercurrent drive pulls against our drive towards connection: we also desire individuation, separateness, freedom.”
-Mark Dotty, Oysters and Lemons

Through this craving for displacement, things become lost in an accumulated “havoc of signs”: thought and memory. Thus, we are reminded to be aware of the present moment and prick our ears up to the commonplace. This is in terms of the world we inhabit, its environment as well as our personal lives. It is a calling to see the physical environment as loaded with spiritual meaning. Intimacy is at the heart of this perceptiveness of the world. Burnside has a burning realisation of the necessity of our intimacy with the environment and ecology. At the same time, he establishes a connection with the physical world by “thinking through things.” He evokes patriotism for the land but sheds the rhetoric of overt politics. Rather, the landscape and objects around us become mythological and pleasurable. We imbue them with these magical powers and they, in turn, transport us elsewhere by casting a spell over our senses: “walked home in a veil/ of citrus and mariposa, dressed for another ballo in maschera”.

The poems deal with Burnside’s personal memories – of childhood (‘The Fair Chase’), unfulfilled love (such as ‘Loved and Lost’; ‘Notes Towards an Ending’), his travels through foreign lands. They delve into a world of personal memory and emerge as mystical journeys and strange myths. They are revealing, exposing their speakers as displaced in their own homeland, “alone in a havoc of signs”.

Ultimately, Black Cat Bone is poetry of return and silence; of Burnside’s return to his Scottish homeland and a rediscovery of its mysterious allure. A return to childhood and his own personal past. A return to the cycles and permanence of the natural environment in a world that is perpetually in flux. Burnside’s cadence moves with the ebb and flow of this transitory, fleeting world. In the midst of this, the poems give us a moment to hark back to a mythological world, the layers of which remain infinitely present in the irredeemable march forward of time. Unlike people, things stand still in this life: Black Cat Bone allows us the moment to stand still with them.

Diana Kurakina

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