Still Life with Feeding Snake

Still Life with Feeding Snake

Summary

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.

Reviews

  • 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.
    Fiona Sampson, New Statesman

About the author

John Burnside

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