John Burnside has a tough job with this collection, his thirteenth; how does one follow up the Forward Prize and T.S. Eliot Prize-winning 2011 collection Black Cat Bone? Any truly great book, poetry or otherwise, casts a long shadow over its successors, but All One Breath manages to step out of the cover of its illustrious forebear with some gloriously vivid poems; beginning with the ten-poem sequence “Self Portrait As Funhouse Mirror”, the collection deals with the problems of image and self-image, notably that of the poet himself. Particularly striking is the sixth poem in the sequence, “A Rival”, in which Burnside catches a glimpse of
someone I might have loved had we ever met
and, now that we’ve come this far, I must admit
that, given the choice, I’d rather her than you.
But the poet isn’t finished with dissecting the possibilities of infidelity, as further observations show that he has caught the stranger giving his own lover
…such private looks
as lovers do, when no-one else can see
and then I’ve turned away, for all our sakes,
because it’s clear she’d rather you than me.
This smart inversion of image characterises the first section; glimpses, real and distorted, of himself and those in his orbit reveal the man and all his flaws, sometimes to an uncomfortable degree.
The second section, “Devotio Moderna” opens with a pleasing epigraph from baseball legend and famous linguistic mangler and malapropist Yogi Berra;
The future ain’t what it used to be.
from which the author concludes in a poem focusing on the New Year that
Since it’s not what it used to be,
the future is ours,
years to regret the bodies we dissolved
in Pinot Noir
This section divides its time: gazing ahead to the end of life with its empty promises of eternity and looking back on lives lived, with Burnside seemingly looking for his place within the world, aware of his own impermanence and resigned to submit to
…a wave of longing in the blood-lit dark
for what we are
beyond the things we seem. (“Officium”)
“Life Class”, the third section, focuses on memory, pulling together fragments of familial recollection – the disappearance of a sister, the funeral and figurative resurrection of a father, a grandmother, a variety of bereavements. Again, the poet is looking for his own life in those of others, stating optimistically in “On The Vanishing Of My Sister, Aged 3, 1965” that
Maybe we have to look back, to see
that we have all the makings of bliss.
Burnside excels at simple declarations of truth or, at least, his own personal truth. In the final section, “Natural History”, he seeks that truth in both the animal kingdom in “Peregrines” and “Sticklebacks”, finding strange piscine beauty in
of wrasse and weever.
In amongst this lyrical nature reserve are the people of Burnside’s life and, ultimately, Burnside himself. He finds a final, lasting image of himself in the closing poem “Choir” as a twelve-year-old boy, transiting from soprano to tenor, mouthing the words in case his breaking vocal cords are discovered. This poem concludes, downbeat yet simultaneously triumphal with the poet’s own glimpse of eternity
I never quite saw the point
of the life to come; back then it seemed
that, like as not, most everything runs on
as choir: all one; the living and the dead:
first catch, then canon; fugal; all one breath.
All One Breath succeeds at so many levels, and does, despite the poet’s pessimism, hint at the purpose of living, and the life to come.