Book review: I Put A Spell On You, John Burnside

John Burnside at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2013.  Picture by Russell G Sneddon
John Burnside at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2013. Picture by Russell G Sneddon
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THERE is, towards the end of John Burnside’s extraordinary, haunting memoir, a moment that you might easily mistake for a brief flicker of contentment.

I Put A Spell On You

John Burnside

Jonathan Cape, £16.99

It’s a winter night and he is at home, tending his stove in his Fife cottage. Everyone else in the house is asleep, and as he watches the flames take, he feels a sense of belonging.

This is what he told himself the future would be “as a hurt, unhappy child, sitting up in my windowsill at Blackburn Drive, listening to the owl in Kirk’s woods, a storybook latter days that I would lay out in my mind again when I was in the asylum, making sense of it and putting it all together like the pieces of a jigsaw, till it became, not a picture so much as an atmosphere, something dark and sweet like the mist that films the glass in a child’s bedroom.”

The poet’s two preceding volumes of memoir have already taken us back, first to that blistered childhood in Cowdenbeath, and his alcoholic, lying, untrustworthy father, a man full of violence, repressed and otherwise, who uprooted the family to Corby.

Already, too, we know something of Burnside’s teenage wildness there, the booze and the LSD binges, and later, after college, the breakdown, and then, oddest of all, the decade-long stab at normality in suburban Surrey, 
where a job in computers and weekend visits to the garden centre were all 
part of the comfortable numbness that is so obviously the antithesis 
of everything we now know his poetry to be.

But this third volume is, in many ways, even more impressive than the other two. Because here at last their darkness is more solidly fused – as hinted at in the above quote – with the mysticism and numinousness of his poetry.

The difference, I think, is love. Under a variety of names, it infuses this book. It’s there first of all in Burnside’s love, deep and unsentimental, for his mother, dead of ovarian cancer at 47. She figures larger here than in the two other books, and he’s candid enough to admit why: that earlier on, he would describe her to his middle-class friends as a working-class Fife wifie. Years later, he has moved so far on from that petty betrayal that just hearing Vera Lynn singing We’ll Meet Again could make him want to lie down on the floor and weep at the memory of his mother singing along to it on the radio “because now I understand what a burden her love was”.

Most of the time, though, the version of love in these pages is what Burnside calls “glamourie”, an old Scots word meaning a magical charm. This is what Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was singing about in I Put A Spell On You back in 1956. The song snaked into the young Burnside’s life when a cousin bought the Nina Simone version in 1965. A few years later, after the family moved to Corby, it struck home. A girl called Annie sang it to him in the local greasy spoon, just picking on a random teen to embarrass with the close-up force of a voodoo serenade. A short while later, she was murdered.

Glamourie can’t last, but while it does, it can indeed put a spell of dark attraction on us. In what Burnside calls the Authorised Version – the conventional way of living our lives – there are no tears in its fabric, nothing that would let the glamourie in. But those LSD binges had already widened some of those fissures in Burnside’s mind, and maybe other things had too – not least his tendency towards apophenia – an extreme condition in which the mind finds links and patterns in random experience. That might sound like a necessary condition for good poetry: in Burnside’s case, as he revealed in Waking Up In Toytown, it ended up with him becoming, quite literally mad, casting ever more elaborately worked-out spells (feathers balanced over jars of blood, alcohol, olive oil and urine) to hold his world together.

I once read an interview in which Burnside said that the main value of poetry was that its language didn’t close down the possibility of thinking about different patterns of life – whether wider, wilder or more idealised. That’s exactly what this book does too, which is why it is as much meditation as memoir and comes, unlike his its two predecessors, with digressions explaining some of the roots of his more idiosyncratic thoughts.

I said at the start that one could easily mistake this book’s ending for contentment. It’s not that, yet at the same time, one reads this book and gets a very real sense of a writer who has thought through an individualistic and compelling way of looking at the world, one that does indeed cast a mightily powerful spell all of its own. n