Twilight zone: Fiona Sampson on John Burnside's double life

John Burnside as a poet and novelist.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Few writers manage distinction in even one form. John Burnside has achieved it in two. Perhaps this feat is so rare in part because it is often treated with suspicion by critics, who seem to feel that they should pigeonhole a writer: witness the shifting responses to the poet-novelists Thomas Hardy, D H Lawrence and Lawrence Durrell in the 20th century. Nevertheless, as Burnside’s publishes a novel and a poetry collection on the same day, the doubled nature of his practice is impossible to ignore – and it is to be celebrated.

The integration, as well as the range, of Burnside’s work across genres has become increasingly clear: he has made verse and prose sing from the same song sheet. Common to his poetry and fiction is the instinct to make his material living and real through atmosphere, evocation and that nub of the underexplained that Virginia Woolf called the “little blur of unconsciousness, that halo of freshness”. Like his verse, his fiction captures the untidiness of life and provides no neat conclusions: neither points of arrival, nor nicely illustrated morals. Yet, instead of being artless, it creates satisfying, haunting wholes. A Burnside narrative stays in the mind like a half-broken dream; it’s often hard to pin down just why it is so compelling.

His new novel, Ashland & Vine, is set in present-day “Scarsville” in the United States. It tracks a friendship that develops between two women, one young and one old, each an inadvertent accessory to the counterculture of her time. Jean Culver, implicated in the anti-Vietnam War protests and the violent movement that grew out of them, tells her story to a student, Kate Lambert, who has her own story about emerging from an affectless relationship and near-alcoholism in today’s arty demi-monde. Burnside has fun with this, dreaming up video artworks for his characters to create. The book may be a serious examination of social history but its cultural observations are sharp to the point of satire.

It is also daring. John Updike’s 2002 novel, Seek My Face, whose structure also rests on an older woman telling her story to a younger one, shows how wrong this “then” and “now” strategy could have gone. When a character’s recollections are used in this way, much of the action takes place outside the novel’s real time; besides, female narrators written by male authors so often end up sounding like men in drag. But while Updike’s book is a leaden philosophical experiment and his women indulge in squirmy, sexual speculation about each other, Ashland & Vine is triumphantly evocative.

In creating a subtle mental world for Kate, Burnside shows the happenstance of actual lives. Her diffident narrative voice and Jean’s compromised life story together evoke the hesitancy and plain confusion that motivate so much of what we do, whether in our private, emotional lives or more publicly through political conviction.

Late-20th-century America also emerges as a character. Like Burnside’s protagonists, it is convincingly defined by its vagaries and inconsistency. Burnside has long been among the most internationalist of our writers, deeply engaged in European and North American culture as a much-translated prizewinner and academic. His poetry, too, is often set in other countries. These are nearly always northerly, often wintery and twilit: a landscape of “night at the edge of the world”. It seems that otherness – being not quite at home – is what compels him.

Still Life With Feeding Snake is no exception. This generous and cohesive collection takes its title from a poem that explores the sense (or senselessness) of a bird being eaten alive by a snake, in “the crawl space” under a house. Burnside can describe the material world with astonishing deftness (he writes a regular nature column for this magazine) but here, as so often in his writing, the observable facts undergo a series of transformations: into a meditation on separateness, from this to the end of a relationship, and then on to the nature of our eat-or-be-eaten world, “where something darker/than the usual dust/makes good on every tender thing it finds”.

Musical and memorable, this is echt Burnside. He is the poet who more than any other writing today sees the material world and the world of thought and ideas as two sides of the most fragile of membranes. Few could make the colour blue such a sensuous symbol of slippages of atmosphere or mood. Few would describe the “tawny camber of the soul” of a hare that has been run over, or a trout that slips from the hands as “a puzzle of warmth/and marrow swimming away/to everywhere”.

Still Life teems with the variety of the world: Euclid, Giorgos Seferis, Chinese ceramics and migrating birds, bedsheets, ruined churches and French paintings. Yet it is not only the symphonic tone poem that they create that holds this book together. Like Ashland & Vine, it pivots on “then” and “now”. More than any of Burnside’s earlier collections, this is a sustained meditation on kinds of love – romantic, filial and fraternal – that are mostly lost. Time after time, it delivers a shock of direct address from out of the musical, tonal magic. “If I imagine you dead, there is no love/immense enough to bring you back to earth,” says the narrator of “Still Life With Lost Cosmonaut”.

Rumoured or named, the lost cosmonauts of the Soviet space programme float through these poems: uncanny sightings made all the more uncanny because we don’t know quite how real they are meant to be. They also stand for an elder brother who was lost, apparently, to the blue baby syndrome that nearly claimed Burnside.

Whether that is autobiography or fiction matters not at all. This is poetry, and the uses of its enchantment are, at least partly, in releasing our nightmares along with our dreams. Suggesting that the best we can do is accept the confusion of our lives and “such gladness as happens, kindling [the] mind like the sun”, both of these books record the ways we haunt and are haunted. They haunt each other, too. If you have hitherto admired John Burnside in only one genre, now is the time to take the smallest of sideways steps and read both.

Fiona Sampson’s latest books are “The Catch” (Chatto & Windus) and “Lyric Cousins: Poetry and Musical Form” (Edinburgh University Press)

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine