LYRIC COMPANION John Burnside “Dundee”

The streets are waiting for a snow / that never falls: / too close to the water, / too muffled in the after warmth of jute, / the houses on Roseangle / opt for miraculous frosts / and the feeling of space that comes / in the gleam of day / when you step outside for the milk / or the morning post / and it seems as if a closeness in the mind / had opened and flowered / the corners sudden and tender, the light immense, / the one who stands here proven after all.

The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, Robert Crawford and Mick Imlah, edd. 2000, p. 508.

FRAME of REFERENCE One might think that sublimity will bring us back to this sense of intimate otherness. It does but in the shattering of form proportionate to our measure. …Something exceeds that form of universality. It is intimate because it strikes through to our own deepest intimacy with a kind of violent formlessness. There is a more hyperbolic sense of the universal in its otherness, communicated in the breakdown of the proportionate universal. The intimate universal is in this breaking in; more, there is a breaking down, and hence a breaking through and a breaking beyond, and this in no subjective, or objective, sense. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, p. 100.


America ‘s sorrows now include the death of Ruth Bader Ginzberg. The crisis will now include her replacement on the Supreme Court. More ghastly polarization in the body politic. We need our poets even more. We need the quiet, the sharp, animal sense of the finite other in the midst. That need is difficult to fill. There’s always John Burnside.


Burnside’s key narrative, shown here in an early poem, depends on a performance using a mask of a regular Joe covering the face of a Rilke. Sounds like a bad joke.

But his narrative cleaves to the basic Lyric narrative. It starts outside, goes inside, meanwhile going down then, paradoxically, up. You see this, feel this, as you read around in Burnside. In our need for a deep sense of possibility, he pulls it off.

Outside there’s an unfinished feeling, a waiting for transformation. Snow. The waiting perdures, stretching our sense of things to include a sense of nothingness. The old existential gambit. Burnside nails it down in plain details of extremity: too this, too that. Makes sense.

He goes deeper into the equivocities of the moment, of the language. The moves are crisp, dialectical, proper names splitting common sense: the houses on Roseangle! Rose/angle!

The very houses “opt” for the ordinary sublime. We may become aware of the slight tension in the syntax, unending, just commas, the short “free verse” phrases building a thickness like thin, translucent washes. The poem turns inward and down/up.

To fetch the milk left by the milkman — the ordinariness of tract housing, suburbia; to fetch the morning paper. Who lives like this now? The power of the lyric narrative absolves this uncertainty in the greater whole of the unfolding poem. We play along. We like this guy, this moment mid morning, midlife, mid everything. He’s us. He needs more than his life has on offer. And in stepping outside, he opens up. The space is fluid.

The tense of the verb changes from the generic lyric present to the past of the “as if.” We know in our guts this move in the narrative. It’s OK. We accept without hesitation Analogy. Much is at stake. Our self hangs in the balance on the edge of despair.

Burnside’s vision has a hard edge to it. This is more than the sublime. He follows the lyric narrative through the final difficult stage. It’s make or break for the poet. How go beyond despair? The suburban self is out of gas, but salvation comes with the milk and the morning post. A closeness in the mind / had opened. Just like that.

No snow, just a change of aspect, a Blick to Wittgenstein. Duck/rabbit. No, no. More than that. The corners sudden and tender, the light immense…Then the final, unauthorized move, a gift of the poem itself: the one who stands here — HERE! After all— a gift of the ambiguity of the vernacular. But the center of this boundless moment is the word “proven.” Is THAT what has been going on? A trial?

I need to think about that. This moment fits Desmond [see Frame of Reference] on the sublime: A thorough breakthrough. I need to think about that.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at tom.develyn@comcast.net. D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at http://tdevelyn.com and other sites.

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