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Still Life With Feeding Snake by John Burnside review – master of the parallel universe

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Levity and gravity make perfect bedfellows in the Scottish poet’s 15th collection

The words “still life” and John Burnside do not belong together. I imagine the unattributed painting he beautifully describes in his poem Still Life to be a 17th-century Dutch genre painting (its neighbour, in this collection, is Hendrick Avercamp: A Standing Man Watching a Skating Boy). But perhaps the painting does not exist, except in Burnside’s imagination. We can visualise the canvas precisely with its Chinese glazes lang yao hong (oxblood) and qingbai (white with greenish tint) and its “blemished” grapes until it is eclipsed by a living scene. The painting is a memento mori but the poem does not – cannot – stay still. Someone – Burnside’s mother? – wraps apples in newspaper while he becomes visible, then vanishes, in the same and final line.

He watches a girl, in a blue dress, in a cafe in Innsbruck. He is spellbound as she unloosens her hair

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