Book review: Ruin, Blossom, by John Burnside

There is magic in this three-part poem, writes Allan Massie, but also good, illuminating sense

I have rarely been at ease reviewing poetry. My tastes are old-fashioned: Housman, Eliot, Dylan Thomas, George Barker and Robert Nye, among others.

I can’t write poetry myself, only very occasional verse. When I had Writer in Residence posts at two or three universities I was always more at ease with students who brought me short stories than with those who gave me their poems to read, even though I was fortunate enough to have some good poets among the students – Andrew Greig, Kathleen Jamie and Barry Fowler, to name three.

Hide Ad

Still, commenting, many years ago, on students’ verses was less daunting than appraising the work of John Burnside, called by a reviewer in The Spectator “by far the best British poet alive”, a survivor also of hardship and distress, and now a professor at the University of St Andrews.

John Burnside PIC: Daniel Roland/AFP via Getty ImagesJohn Burnside PIC: Daniel Roland/AFP via Getty Images
John Burnside PIC: Daniel Roland/AFP via Getty Images

Burnside is now in his sixties, an age at which many great poets have been either dead or become extinct volcanos. This new work is a single poem in three parts: Apostasy, Bedlam, Blossom, each part made up of single poems written, mostly, in short stanzas.

Apostasy is betrayal or a falling away at least; “in Summer it was harder to be churched; / the pagan-gods were out, their sentries / drifting through the sun-lit / chapel.”

Bedlam is where the bruised mind wanders: “Before the fall, the woods were full of clues. / But no one saw the beauty of the serpent, only the dew trails winding through the grass / where god had been, before he came to naught.”

Blossom is, I suppose, recovery or rebirth, of a sort, anyway: “No reason now to talk about the dead; / I turn a corner and the wind gusts in / from everywhere, its salt touch on my lips? A fragment from the Book of Genesis; and everything comes clear. No explanation; / even in lockdown, the mixed scent of sugar and ozone, / sun on the courthouse, plum blossom ghosting the square.”

What is it all about? A brown plate still doing its table duty? A bruised spirit listening to the wind and opening his face to the sun and the flowers of Spring? Perhaps, or as you like it, every reader seeking ease in Arden.

Hide Ad

Poetry of this quality is experienced before it is understood, may not in any case yield to a single explanation or elucidation. You may read it as a story, a journey from darkness into light, from the winter of the spirit and confusion of the mind to the birds and flowers of a miraculously gifted springtime. Or of course, none of these things, for you may find your own way to living with and in these poems.

There is never a correct way to read good poetry. Even the poet rarely knows what he means until he sees what he has said. Asked about the meaning of a line in his poem “Sordello”, Robert Browning replied that when he wrote it only God and he knew what it meant “but now only God does”. I suppose if you asked John Burnside to make a paraphrase of his poem, he would look at you blankly and might even whisper that light may shine in darkness but darkness still shrouds the light. Or something like that.

Hide Ad

The point I am seeking to make is that poems of any merit – and this poem’s merit seems to be great – are to be lived with, not merely listened to or read and then stowed away. Ruin, Blossom tells, it seems to me, of great disturbance of the mind and spirit. Some of the verses of this poem are very simple and beautiful – and not afraid to be simply beautiful. Others twist the tongue, just as life does.

Burnside has here, I am certain of this at least, written a poem to keep by you, to dwell in, to make the reader think and feel at the same time, as one does when reading a Shakespeare comedy or an ode by Keats. There is magic here, sometimes troubling magic, but there is also good, illuminating sense. It appeals to the ear, to the mind, and to the spirit, and you will harvest more with successive readings.

Ruin, Blossom, by John Burnside, Cape Poetry, £13