John Burnside,
The Light Trap
(Jonathan Cape, 2002)

I first became aware of the Scottish poet John Burnside in 1994 when he was one of 20 poets being marketed by the New Generation Poets promotion of the Poetry Society. Some of the other poets chosen for this initiative -- notably Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy -- have become big names in the British poetry world but, for me, it is Burnside's work that has been the most exciting of all. The Light Trap is his eighth volume in a prolific and high quality career.

His attempt to see into the inner workings of the natural world, and to explore the process of experiencing it, is central to Burnside's work alongside an acute spiritual awareness. If you are looking for poetry to take you to a space beyond everyday urban life you could do no better than reading this book. However, do not expect an idealist about nature, but rather a poet who reflects on the complex connections between humans, animals and their shared environment.

The epigraph to The Light Trap is taken from Wallace Stevens and suggests the links Burnside's own poems will make: "A man and a woman / Are one. / A man and a woman and a blackbird / Are one." Indeed, the blackbird becomes an important symbolic presence in the book. When he writes of the bird's song as "sweeter by far than anything we know" I am reminded of the diction of Edward Thomas, the early 20th-century Anglo-Welsh nature poet -- who has a similarly rhythmic voice in reflecting about the way we perceive nature. Burnside suggests the dangers we face in claiming ownership of nature through trying to know and name everything: "Once we are close enough to give them names / we cannot help but treat them as our own, / these animals."

Burnside often takes us by surprise in his poems, for example in "Animals." Here there is a sense of the mystery of night creatures you cannot see properly in a car's headlights. In a poetry reading he gave of his work in Liverpool he explained a belief he has that we do not in fact know everything in nature and that there may be animals beyond our comprehension. Other touching poems concern his relationship with his young son. In "Promenade" he addresses him as the man he will be in the future but feels that his son's memory will provide the continuity with places and experience in the past.

The poems also grapple with some essential ecological issues including, most poignantly, "but this is the problem: how to be alive / in all this gazed-upon and cherished world / and do no harm." Read this book and find some new insights about how we can better understand our relationship with nature.

- Rambles
written by Andy Jurgis
published 24 January 2004

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