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All One Breath by John Burnside – review


Earthed and ethereal, the latest collection of poems from the author of Black Cat Bone is a marvel

You might have expected that after Black Cat Bone, which won the TS Eliot and the Forward prizes, John Burnside would produce no more than an afterthought of a collection. But All One Breath, his 13th, is a fully realised marvel, one of the most charged collections I have read in a long time. His writing is earthed and ethereal – there is a rare equilibrium to it.

We visit a fairground in the first poem, Hall of Mirrors, 1964. Nothing about the ambling startprepares you for the wonders to come: "It wasn't a fairground so much;/ just an acre of clay on old man Potter's land/ where someone had set up shop/ to amuse the locals".

There is an unstated yearning throughout; the fairground fish come closest to expressing it: "where goldfish in their hundreds probed the walls/ of fishtanks for the missing scent/ of river".

In the warped glass of the fairground mirror – the first of a hall of mirrors, each of which will make a poem – the mother's rose-print sundress is reflected, its fabric seen as a landscape, eventually an Eden. Then he spots his own distorted image and recognises its truth: "I knew him better: baby-faced/ pariah; little/criminal, with nothing to confess/ but narrow innocence". He feels exposed, believes his mother has seen him similarly. We have left the goldfish behind in a poem that touches on original sin and transcends it. If there is consolation, it is that unity rescues: "everything/ is choir".

But most of all this is a collection about the oddity of self-knowledge. He might glimpse himself in the corner of a mirror or at the edges of a wood. Self might steal up or sidestep him altogether. In Self Portrait as Picture Window he describes the feeling of a familiar imposter taking over: "a man so like myself that nobody/ would spot the difference". It's a stunning poem about the slippage of self. Similarly, in Self Portrait, his reflection is a "patient/ look-alike" who "paid forfeit to the dark".

Whatever was surrendered to the dark is balanced by light. Reading Burnside, one rejoices in his ability to face abject truths with a lyrical, resurgent energy – like a rose trained to climb through dead wood. There are actual roses here, incidentally – his grandmother's Zéphirine Drouhin remembered by name.

In Officium, the opening lines ought to be lowering: "It comes to us, after a time,/ that there's no forever". But as it leads on, the chiffchaff, breath of wind, wave of longing in the summer grass become part of the first thought, and show, in the most unforced way, that it is because the moment passes that it is beautiful.

At the Entering of the New Year (Homage to Thomas Hardy) begins with a quotation from Yogi Berra: "The future isn't what it used to be." It's one of the best poems I've read about a middle-aged reckoning, which argues: "and, having come this far,/ can we take it as read/ that nothing ever happens/ for a reason".

There is no mistaking the carefree quality to his conclusions, the jauntiness of the syntax. It makes one feels like cheering. Later he elaborates:

and if what we insist on calling
fate seems inexplicable or cruel
it's only because
we lack the imagination

to wish for what it brings,
to brighten it

with something more inventive
than dismay.

That "something" is this breathtaking collection.

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