(Book Review) Black Cat Bone by John Burnside

By David Nilsen

black catIn The Fair Chase, the extended opening poem of John Burnside’s latest volume of poetry, the narrator hunts a strange creature through the woods and across the countryside. The poem obliquely explores identity, childhood, vocation, loneliness. The simple meaning, like the creature pursued, stays always just out of reach. This is a feeling I had repeatedly while reading Black Cat Bone (Graywolf Press, 2015). I felt I was pursuing the ghostly beast of understanding throughout these pages, almost grasping it, always losing it in the bushes. Burnside writes no accidental verses. Even the most descriptive lines of landscape hold that elusive something. He neither telegraphs his meanings nor forgets them, and it is this deft revealing and concealing that makes this volume of poetry one of the most devastating and compelling I have read in some time.

The Fair Chase describes a place in which all men regardless of  vocation join in the titular hunt. The narrator joins but doesn’t know the camaraderie of the group, displaying some deficiency of social ease or competence or interest that alienates him. Perhaps he is an artist, a writer, and would rather ponder than pursue. He walks out onto a frozen pond one morning:

“Minutes I waited; then the others came
and called me back, the dogs a swarm of noise
and worry, old men’s

faces in a mist of their own breath
ashamed for my father’s sake
and his father before him.”

He is a breathing disappointment, and yet he pursues the beast they all pursue and, parting from the group, eventually overtakes it. When he returns to his village, he is no more known that he was before his success, is, in fact, more othered than he was in his naive failure. He is a ghost in a house no one enters.

There is a highness to these verses it feels too easy to call classical. Burnside writes with a gravity that hints at more than the obvious sharp honing of his craft. There is a stature to these poems that feels carved from older stock, like a more sensitive Jim Harrison. I grow so very weary of hearing a certain kind of writing by a certain kind of white male author referred to as muscular, but I am tempted to use it here, with qualifications. This is not a brutish muscularity, but the muscularity of a ballet dancer, a strength displayed in its controlled grace rather than in bare-chested lifting.

The book is largely pastoral in its imagery, pulling in flora and fauna and sweeping countrysides to touch on themes of love, loneliness, regret. If you’ve ever lived out in the country you know how haunting is the sound of truck tires on a distant highway at night, the plaintive moan of a train whistle, the broken howl of some wild thing that needs food and coitus as much as any human. Take here the way Burnside joins the natural with the personal in Loved and Lost:

a pintailed duck
is calling to itself

across a lake,
the answer it receives

no more or less remote than we become
to one another,

mapped,
then set aside, till we admit

that love divulged is barely love at all:
only the slow decay of a second skin

concocted from the tinnitus of longing.”

Or here the poet’s reflections on the end of a relationship in Notes Toward an Ending:

“…a seasoned
glimmer of the old days in this house
where, every night, we tried and failed to mend
that feathered thing we brought in from the yard,
after it came to grief on our picture window.”

Though this never feels directly assigned to the poet, the verses in this book carry with them a sense of melancholy innocence, naivety disappointed, the tragedy of the good-hearted failure. That is to say, there is no fault assigned for the wounds inflicted herein, no evil lurking. There is a wild that contains hunger and pain, and there are those who go in look of something else besides, some good among the danger. The poet’s heart is, to stretch the verse above, a vulnerable bird that comes to grief through no fault of its own or anyone else’s; this is simply to live in a world in which life’s continuance is not guaranteed. There are a few poems in which Burnside ventures into a more modern mode of transgression, and these are the only verses that falter in the volume. When he is at rest, nested in the erudite melancholy of mortality, his verses come alive.

Death pervades these pages, but not morbidly, not perversely. Whether he is hunting a living thing through the pines, standing over a bobcat laid out on the road, or reflecting on the death of his mother in childbirth (a fiction for these verses; Burnside has elsewhere reflected on his memories of his mother, who did not die in childbirth), these poems trace their fingers along the rim of the inevitable end of life. At several points, this seems strongly connected to childhood, and it is certainly true that we are often most aware of the passage of time and our own definite mortality when we look back at childhood, at a sepia domestic landscape that feels like it happened to a different person. Here he writes in Death Room Blues:

“Small wonder that I overcame my fear
of sweetness, when the only white I knew
was first snow at the margins of the world,

and any chore is sweeter, now,
than scripture, where the hand that smooths away
each local asterisk of stripped desire

can seem so much like something I once lost
I’m half convinced that childhood never happened.”

It’s a cliche, perhaps, that sadness is more beautiful than happiness, but so often for me what is most beautiful in writing is a wound aptly described, a hurt appropriately thumbed by graceful language. John Burnside would seem to agree. I think the best place to finish this review is with a stanza from Neoclassical, a poem that looks at spirituality, family generations, loss, mortality–in short, the themes Burnside traces throughout Black Cat Bone:

“And this is the grief
our stories prepared us for,
a ghost in the undergrowth,
hungry for nectar and blood,
and something we ought to have known,
without being told,
slinking toward us
out of the afternoon,
tender and wild
and blind to our fondest desires.”

Black Cat Bone is a volume of uncommon beauty and grace by a poet in deft control of his instrument. Pick it up as soon as you can.


Black Cat Bone is available today at Greenville Public Library.

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