From our earliest childhood experiences, we learn to see the world as contested space: a battleground between received ideas, entrenched conventions and myriad Authorised Versions on the one hand, and new discoveries, terrible dangers, and everyday miracles on the other. As we grow, that world expands further, to include new species, lost continents, the realm of the dead and the lives of others: cosmonauts swim in distant space, unseen creatures pass through a garden at dusk; we are surrounded by delectable mysteries.
The question of this contested, liminal world sits at the centre of Still Life with Feeding Snake, whose poems live at the edge of loss, or on the cusp of epiphany, always seeking that brief instant of grace when we see what is before us, and not just what we expected to find. In ‘Approaching Sixty’, the poet watches as a woman unclasps her hair: ‘so the nape of her neck/is visible, slender and pale/for moments, before the spill/of light and russet/falls down to her waist’. This, like each poem in the book, becomes an essay in still life and a memento mori, illuminating transient experience with a profound clarity and a charged, sensual beauty.
Burnside can describe the material world with astonishing deftness… 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… 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… Still Life teems with the variety of the world… 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.
In John Burnside’s latest collection of poetry Still Life with Feeding Snake… nothing stays still for very long and every image wrought onto the page is alight with life and movement… His signature style and themes are present in his latest work Still Life with Feeding Snake, along with a dose of humour… Burnside blends words the way a baker kneads dough – he rolls them up, scrunches them together, stretches a string of them to breaking point then folds them into each other to create something else entirely, all the while never moving from that same meditative spot where a little flour has been sprinkled across the table… A soulful and meditative collection, Still Life with Feeding Snake is already a 2017 literary highlight.
As a poet, Burnside has peripheral vision: he is always glimpsing other worlds out of the corner of his eye… The joy of his poems – and part of what makes them moving – is that he does know and never stops registering the ways in which beauty makes life worth living.
These poems haul you back to the time when you first realized how alone you were (and are), all the time wondering what to become and how. Burnside’s genius is to makes some sense of this pain, for himself and for the reader. This is poetry acting as a scalpel, cutting the heart in order to heal.
The world is such a mess. These poems concentrate on stillness, on time that isn’t haste. They deliver a zen remedy of calm alert.