Sarah Crown on the glory of John Burnside's bleak portraits of solitude
There's something about being a follower of John Burnside that feels a little like checking in at regular intervals with an archaeological dig. The terrain, the tools, the questions under investigation: all are immediately familiar to the returning reader. But with each new book – of poetry, fiction or memoir – Burnside incrementally advances his enterprise, burrowing deeper down through the roots of things and subtly developing his conclusions in the light of what he unearths.
In this collection – his 13th – he draws heavily once again on the fraught and fractured childhood he "lost / on purpose"; the book is possessed by the ghosts of his past. As in previous books, the smeary darkness of those early years, clouded with factory smoke and fag ash, and the polluting shadow of his alcoholic father, is balanced by an obsession, in adulthood, with birds and air and every kind of light: stars' glitter; gardens "strung with coloured bulbs"; daylight, headlights, first light, lamplight. But if the material hasn't much altered, his responses to it have unmistakably evolved. Despite the turbulence of his upbringing (or possibly because of it), his poetry has focused on the importance of family and relationships. All One Breath, by contrast, is bleakly occupied with isolation. We may be surrounded by people, Burnside suggests, but when the chips are down, we're on our own, "out at the end of winter, turning away / to where the dark begins, far in the trees". It's an image that sums up the collection's spirit: this is a mid-life, dark woods kind of a book; death-haunted and offering precious little in the way of comfort.
In the opening section, "Self-portrait in a funhouse mirror", Burnside uses mirrors of all kinds to dramatise this notion of the lonely crowd, of our lives as rooms that look full at first glance, but in that, in truth, we're standing alone, seeing only ourselves. Thomas Hardy's "I Look Into My Glass" is one of the all-time great mirror poems, and Burnside nods to him directly, labelling two of his poems as homages. But where the glass in Hardy's poem is as candid as the evil queen's in Snow White, in general, the mirrors here (such as the one in his grandmother's hallway that dangles the false promise of escape into a "far / white distance at the corner of the glass, / a thousand miles of tundra") are unreliable witnesses. In the section's final poem, "Spiegelkabinett, Berlin, 2012", Burnside ventures into a "mirror maze" with his son and finds himself "at the centre of the room / turning around to see myself again / and then again". Just as the mirrors double and redouble his reflection, so the poem explores the situation's symbolic possibilities: tangled with Burnside's reflections are those of his son, who is another sort of reflection of himself – a realisation that in turn leads Burnside to reflect on his relationship with his own father. We're always fearful, he says, "of the image in the glass / that might, in some far nightmare, find us out/ as mine does: me, my father, no man's son, / the stumbling figure in the mirror maze." What the mirrors reveal, it seems, is the emptiness at the heart of our relationships, until, in the end,
... there's nothing but the frame
where no one stands, though almost anyone
could find his way, through love and loss of love,
to this finale, orphaned, far from home.
Cheery, right? And that's before we get to the death bit. Towards the end of the collection, the poems become crammed and glutted with it: hospitals, funerals, flesh "yellowed and cold"; the famous (Etta James, Natalie Wood), the infamous (his father), leaves, bees, gods, sheep. Not only are we all alone, we're all going to die, too – and Burnside sets out, in poems whose rare and memorable beauty feels at times like an ironic comment on their subject matter, to make sure we don't forget it.
All of which makes the book's closing image more startling. The final poem is a first-person account of the speaker's attendance, aged 12, at his church choir, in which the choirmaster, "close to retirement ... hammered away / at the upright piano". "He knew us all by heart," says Burnside, in a handful of words conjuring a life of quiet dedication so vividly that when we learn of the choirmaster's death, and the funeral "in the steeltown rain" that Burnside fails to attend, it feels (with apologies for the pun) like the last nail in the collection's coffin. But in the final lines, Burnside turns it all around. He doesn't believe in an afterlife, he says; "like as not, most everything runs on / as choir: all one, the living and the dead: / first catch, then canon, fugal; all one breath." To end on such a rich chord feels at first curious: the idea of harmony appears to run counter to everything that's gone before. But for all the melancholy of this collection, Burnside is not a nihilist; the glory of these poems shows us that. We may be divided, but even the fact of our aloneness isn't hopeless: harmony can only exist if we each take our separate lines. And if we're all shouting into the void, he seems to be saying, the best we can do is join our voices together. • Annabel Pitcher's latest book is Ketchup Clouds (Indigo).