An essay on narrative

Poet and novelist John Burnside is one of Scotland's best-known writers. This new sequence of poems

The universe as we know it is a joint product of the observer and the observed

Teilhard de Chardin

1 Sleep

We came so far, then stopped to see ourselves:

this minor gold, that memory of light,

angels and birds in the trees, like an early painting;

and though we were careful,

we knew it would happen again,

the life we forgot in the dying

stuck in its groove

and repeating, all shuffle and click

and words that have passed beyond sense,

like a 50s pop song.

Meanwhile, eternity waits: all the shadows and glints

we might have seen, the facts we might have witnessed,

lemongrass, godwit, the weather in Rome, or Calcutta,

and, elsewhere in that sprawl of light and time,

the strangers, in their hats and winter coats,

coming indoors to a childhood that nothing can finish:

wind in an upstairs room, or the nine o'clock ferry

crossing from here to there in a slow trail of clouds,

and, somewhere below, where the people arrive or diminish,

an evensong of steam and radio

played to a crop of freshly labelled jars.

2 Waking

Or look at it

like this:

you are walking away

from the town

in an early rain,

not to be gone,

but to venture

a new arrival,

the wet grass

matted with song

and the fret of cicadas,

windflowers, poppies,

those cradles of light

in the hedge;

and all the way out

this stranger is hurrying in

to take your place,


until he arrives

at some turn in the story:

a signal retrieved from the dark

and the randomised dead

unable to answer;

the summons of cold

and blackness

at the door,

brimming with snow

and the first slow declensions

of stars.

3 Home

A thin mist over the road

and the moon at our window;

the furniture waiting to happen,

the doors inexact,

and the people we wanted to find

asleep, or in hiding;

and yet, in the flush of arrival

we did what was needed,

we borrowed a shape from the house

and fashioned a past:

farm hands locked in their beds

with their flooded hymnals,

dawn in the larder,

ice on the christening spoons,

a quiet woman in another room

clearing a table.

Nothing is ever undone,

though the rain keeps changing,

scented with pollen or dusk,

or folded for weeks

in napkins and blouses,

in place-mats and antimacassars;

and everyone survives

their lifelong loves:

children and fathers,

grandparents, second husbands,

each of them finding a gap,

or a crease in the fabric,

to enter the moonlight

and wait, as a story unfolds.

4 Building, dwelling

Bury a coin in the mortar; bury a song;

nothing is builded here, though the walls are mended;

pages of fish-scale and butane; pages of hazel;

salt on the fire; first salt, then a glimmer of eyes.

5 Movie

In a story you would have remembered, after a while,

the girlfriend you must have forgotten is crossing a street

when snow begins to fall, sudden and quick

and convincing, like an early 50s film.

She has only stepped out for a moment, no hat, no coat,

and her skin is still warm from indoors, so the snowflakes

melt on her face and hair, while she stands in a doorway

talking to someone inside: the janitor, say,

or the suddenly deaf old man who taught her piano

and dreams of her at night, against his will.

You have driven all day, and the past is still folding behind you,

heavy and dark, like Fury, or Touch of Evil,

and when you glanced back at the road, through the rear-view mirror

you looked like Franchot Tone, or Fred MacMurray.

Now, in a country for those who have tired of objects,

the apple yards shaped by the wind and the houses drowned

in that variety of white that touches

every whin and feather, every stone,

you step out in the snow - and this is it:

the childhood you had lost, the roads and meadows,

bridegrooms and cousins walking from garden to garden,

the living, the dead, the widowed, the still unborn.

You know there are other stories, and some of those

have long afternoons of mystery, or love,

but this is the one where you pull off for petrol and drinks

in a town that seems vaguely familiar - the street trees, the shopfronts,

the man at the checkout, who once saw your face in the paper,

the girl in the doorway, who looks round and catches your eye.

6 Transmigration

We heard them but we couldn't see the geese, as they streamed overhead;

locked, as we were,

in this low-ceilinged theatre of lights,

talking, then tilting our heads

to listen, the pauses


so when we spoke again

it sounded more like radio

than conversation:

the brown of a middle distance

gathered around us,

a new kind of luck, staying put,

while the geese hurried on,

the way, on a damp afternoon,

in an unlit house,

a quiet we couldn't have hoped for

unfolds from the cupboards

and clothes us

in a life we can only borrow,

putting on

and taking off again

the jasmine of after,

the mother-of-pearl in beyond.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: Time to break free?