Brink, by Jo Burns, Turas Press, 64 pp, €12, ISBN 978-1913598242
Double, double toil and trouble – William Shakespeare, Macbeth
On January 6th last year, the former US president and a band of followers staged what appeared to be a coup attempt in the nation’s capital city, featuring violence, a number of loyal state and local public servants, a larger group of armed thugs, and a big lie about a stolen election. Just twenty years after an attack on the nation’s military command centre, the same country saw an improbable attack on its Capitol building that had to be quashed by armed force.
In Brink, Jo Burns sketches a world where the line that separates our lives from chaos appears to be alarmingly thin. The collection opens with the poem “The Time it Takes Revisited”, which reprises a similarly titled poem from her previous collection, White Horses, thus establishing the continuity of her new work. This new volume is more focused than the earlier work, which ranged broadly over the world, displaying the poet’s familiarity with languages and cultures in far-flung places as it surveyed the global wreckage of a post-colonial world. In her first collection, the tumultuous viewpoint from which her readers viewed the wreckage was often Northern Ireland of the 1990s, the home Burns had left in those chaotic years to eventually settle in Germany.
This new volume begins with a series of poems that refer to present-day Germany, but also to the Weimar Republic during the rise of fascism. The themes introduced resonate with the title of the volume since they convey a sense of urgency. Once the topic of urgency has been expounded, Burns focuses on concerns that afford readers a broader perspective. The perfect storm of existential crises we face is certainly cause for alarm, but to believe ourselves uniquely afflicted by these crises would be to wilfully turn our backs on history since in some respects humans have never had it better. The doomsday feeling that undermines our psychic equilibrium is not unique to our generation. Early Christians – just to consider one example – lived out their lives in the conviction that the end was near.
After ringing the alarm bell, Burns moves on to consider – even in these fretful times – some aspects of the fullness of life and the diversity of our world. She also refers to a handful of writers from Middle Europe and elsewhere whose unfamiliar names may send readers scurrying to Wikipedia. Their work mainly relates to the rise of fascism and the emotional and human fallout of World War II. These references lend gravitas to the collection and broaden readers’ perspective. The volume includes two accomplished translations by Burns of poems by the German poet Horst Lange. During the Nazi regime, Lange stayed to fight rather than flee and lived to tell the tale. Burns’s poem “German Autumn” is an impressionistic sketch of the bleak grimness of postwar Germany and bears the inscription “1946. After Stig Dagerman”. Dagerman was a Swedish writer and prominent anarcho-syndicalist sometimes compared stylistically with Franz Kafka. His writing reflected the sense of alienation that characterised the postwar period in much of Europe.
In Brink, Burns offers a snapshot of our times that reveals changes in manners and habits which have occurred during the Covid crisis. The post-colonial wreckage she portrayed in her previous collection is still with us ‑ in fact the devastation has worsened in some respects ‑ while in Northern Ireland many are the citizens who still long for some sort of magical entente which would allow the population of that part of the island to move forward and unleash its potential. But today, wherever we happen to live, global concerns are right here on our own doorstep. The poet’s timely sketch of our brave new world builds on the writing style of her previous volume. She now delineates with new sharpness and clarity a description of our world from the point of view of a global citizen.
In the poem “Imaginary Departure Lounges”, Burns reflects abstractly on the experience of life during the Covid crisis:
After one year of lockdown, home-schooling
and Zoom, you are dreaming of danger
and flying to some imaginary lover
of all lovers in Santiago, or San Francisco
with a circle of friends (all artists).
In the liminal between insomnia and sleep,
a volcano of volcanoes with the mother
of all names has drawn vetoes to dream-affairs.
Pipes have burst and your cellar is flooded.
Duty is now pelting ash at your back,
in pulsing morse code. It’s not over.
Stay home. Stay home. Stay home.
In “Cooking in the Anthropocene’’, Burns again reflects on the current moment, this time seen from an imagined future:
Student of the next great epoch,
reading this: imagine this poet of forty-four
(at the time) on a Mac book (check
capsules on Mars) thinking of how
to charter years on the down
When we reach the final stanzas of this poem, it becomes clear why the poet has chosen an imagined future as the viewpoint: she is considering how our actions might be judged by future generations.
We preached on Facebook, over
and over, about change, so we didn’t
actually need to. And when a leader
burnt all the facts, we smouldered
as some posted Give him a chance.
In the lines above, Burns highlights one of the important leitmotifs that runs throughout this volume: the theme of self-questioning. The poet asks herself again and again, having viewed signs of impending doom in populist mobilisations, in tendentious political discourse, and in an inadequate response to the climate crisis, did we do enough, did we respond with alacrity or did we merely continue to sleepwalk into a menacing future?
Always in the background, overshadowing this discussion, looms the example of the Weimar Republic. Our current judgment is that those citizens didn’t do enough, in fact, did the opposite: as some of them became complicit in a nightmarish political turn that threatened the basis of our civilisation and led to abominations, as an even worse global catastrophe was narrowly averted, other citizens impotently fretted. If such a situation were to repeat itself, would we, armed with our knowledge of the past, act differently?
The development of this theme can be seen in the poem “Freefall”, which begins as follows:
Because of the sequential chain
of things, I submerged, my evening
Pinots un-syncopated by female gossip
at the bar. Everything was horizontal
and heavy, a stagnation of status quo.
The poem begins at a leisurely pace, then suddenly takes a dramatic turn in the third stanza: “Then the attack on the synagogue / sent things fluid”. In the following stanza, the poet herself becomes the subject: “I can’t dam, // but I will damn these years, / where everything in me splayed / and straightened.”
In the final stanza, the poem moves with a sense of inevitability towards its conclusion:
The irony and unyielding motion
of the flood that swept us all
off tangent. Passive-Aggressive
on the lip, I write it; brink,
the tilt that we spectated.
As Brink proceeds to its close, Burns reprises its main themes – personal responsibility, urgency, life going on, some of the good moments we still have. The final poem is a coda that restates these themes. Burns refers again to populism, the current miasma of unsubstantiated rumours and lies, the public response to crises, and to our own actions: how we respond to events that might shape our lives. Since this poem aptly sums up the thematic content of Brink, I will conclude on this note, quoting it in its entirety.
The populist’s open-mic is on
and the crowd is waving Reichsbürger flags.
Someone is harping on about vaccines,
Gates, reptilian overlords,
and of course 5G and Rothschild.
I meet up for the first time
with a friend, since the lockdown.
We’ve the same intention, to spectate
a farce, the one our kids are facing.
But we’re happy, despite the distance,
sitting together, in our mission.
We pop too many corks and prost
on the pier, above the rabbit hole,
tipsy, dangling over murky water.
Summer’s coming but we’re split,
conspiracy or truth. And who’s to say
which is which or even who is who?
I’ve lived division in my youth.
Now I face the moon expanding
with a breath that’s not my own,
in a land that’s not my home.
We are witnesses. Whatever comes.
Dick Edelstein contributes essays, reviews and articles to journals and websites in Ireland and the United Kingdom and is a contributing writer at the 3 Quarks Daily web portal.