Shortlisted for the 2014 T.S. Eliot Prize and the Forward Prize for Best Collection
‘There are lines in All One Breath for instance, that brand themselves into your brain with the fire of painful recognition. And yet it is also part of his genius to be ever alert to beauty, too.’ - Sebastian Barry, a New Statesman Book of the Year
In this absorbing, brilliant new collection – his first since Black Cat Bone – John Burnside examines our shared experience of this mortal world: how we are ‘all one breath’ and – with that breath – how we must strive towards the harmony of choir. Recognising that our attitudes to other creatures – human and non-human – cause too much damage and hurt, that ‘we’ve been going at this for years: / a steady delete / of anything that tells us what we are’, these poems celebrate the fleeting, charged moments where, through measured and gracious encounters with other lives, we find our true selves, and bring some brief, insubstantial goodness and beauty into being.
He presents the world in a series of still lifes, in tableaux vivants and tableaux morts, in laboratory tests, anatomy lessons, in a Spiegelkabinett where the reflections in the mirrors, distorted as they seem, reveal buried truths. All the images are in some sense self-portraits: all are, in some way, elegies.
One of the finest and most celebrated lyric poets at work today, John Burnside is a master of the moment – when the frames of our film seem to slow and stop and a life slips through the gap in between – and each poem here is a perfect, uncanny hymn to humanity, set down ‘to tell the lives of others’.
There are lines in All One Breath for instance, that brand themselves into your brain with the fire of painful recognition. And yet it is also part of his genius to be ever alert to beauty, too.
One of the most charged collections I have read in a long time. [Burnside's] writing is earthed and ethereal – there is a rare equilibrium to it... Breathtaking.
John Burnside is a genius... He is constantly live to alternative possibilities and versions of himself, as close yet unreachable as his own shadow. His responses to the world are so raw, it's as if he's missing a skin – or perhaps the rest of us have grown hides to make life manageable.
Rare and memorable beauty... For all the melancholy of this collection, Burnside is not a nihilist; the glory of these poems shows us that.
Memory and self-reflection merge into elegy... Burnside is a master of the final clinching line... Across the length of whole poems and the whole book there is great wisdom about how people learn to get along with family and with their own past selves, "the backrooms of the heart"; about the limits of self and body; and about how human beings have mistaken and abused the non-human.