Review by Lex RuncimanThe Hunt in the Forest by John Burnside

by John Burnside

Cape Poetry
Jonathan Cape, Random House
20 Vauxhall Bridge Road
London SW1V 2SA
ISBN 9780224089272
2009, 52 pp., £10.00

John Burnside’s The Hunt in the Forest concerns itself thematically with death or how close we can come to it.  That is the gist of “Learning to Swim,” the book’s opening poem about its speaker’s first immersion using the sink-or-swim instructional method. The speaker lives, though it was a close call. What sticks in one’s memory is “the water’s answer / the shadow it left in my blood when it let me go.”

Death and its proximity is also the theme for one of the book’s strongest poems, “In Memoriam,” a poem notable  in that contrary to one currently commonplace expectation, it never embraces a directly confessional stance.  Burnside is a poet of what Robert Frost called “the sound of sense.” He proceeds by ear, by image, as much as by thought. You can hear his ear at work in the phrase “the water’s answer.” And you can hear it in any of the lengthy sentences that make up “In Memoriam.”

In that poem in four parts, long sentences become the principle method for at once staving off and also somehow engaging what has clearly become, later or sooner, the inevitable. In one such sentence, the poem’s subject, someone “on the surgery ward,” is imagined dreaming: “… you were leaning in to the flicker and twitch / of a dream you could never enter, hoping to catch / the ghost of something feral …” In total, this single sentence runs two thirds of a page. But even in the small bit quoted, you can hear how “flicker” plays off against “never,” how “twitch” gets echoed by “catch,” and how “feral” makes a recombination of “flicker,” “never,” and “enter.” In this poem, sound and imagined memory become an evocative memorial for someone who, we learn three quarters of the way through, may have lived “a marriage falling open like a book / … / from thought to song, from song to widowhood / a voice that is quiet and clear, till you open the door.”

What such poems do early in this book is open out a field of discussion. After the death of a loved one, where does that person go? We know what happens to the body. But for those who survive, the dead person goes into the past, which arrives suddenly as something altered and new: “On some days it feels like a gift, / flaws in the line of a sumac becoming // linnets, or finches…” The referent for “it” here is likely light itself (the quotation comes from a poem titled “An Essay Concerning Light”). But light is surely and easily equated with life, with the fact of continued life despite the death of someone close. In that new condition, that afterwards, the world can seem one busy and evocative “Echo Room” (as another poem has it).

The more one reads in this book, the more its ordering appears at once conscious and ambitious. In this, it can remind one of Robert Penn Warren’s numbered sequences. Burnside doesn’t go so far as to make that direct assertion numbering would affirm. But the book is not divided into sections. Surprisingly, the early death-related poems serve to open out the book’s scope and regard. Thus, in “Documentary,” we see and hear invoked the possibility of “… our parallel selves / brighter and more successful than we seem, // but touched, still, with a possibility: / the parallel, we’re led to guess, // of us.” This is at once a response to grief and an allusion to the conjectures of contemporary physics. Ultimately, what this book seeks to accomplish is a transmutation from the calm violence and absence of death to expressions of beauty. This is an old pairing, to be sure, but Burnside doesn’t treat it as old or worn. In his hands, it reads new. Saying “Poppy Day” out loud may be sufficient evidence.

John Burnside rightfully commands a considerable reputation in his native country (Scotland, and more broadly, the UK) where his poetry – now eleven books – and his prose (both fiction and memoir) are widely recognized.  Somehow his poetry has not found an American publisher. Alas, we’re the poorer for it.


Lex Runciman’s most recent book is Starting from Anywhere (Salmon Poetry, 2009). He teaches at Linfield College in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

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