White Horses, by Jo Burns 92 pp, Turas Press, €12, ISBN: 978-0995791657
In her debut poetry collection, closely following the UK publication of her pamphlet Circling for Gods, Jo Burns ranges far and wide, circling the globe to reflect on occurrences in places as diverse as India, Germany, South Africa and Northern Ireland, shifting her gaze back and forth in time as she surveys the wreckage of a post-colonialist landscape.
Born in Maghera in the 1970s, Burns belongs to the generation that grew up amidst the Troubles, coming of age in the tumultuous years leading up to the Good Friday Agreement. While new cohorts of Ulster poets have emerged from a society marked by a troubled peace, Burns remains firmly tied to a generation that has seen too much and is unable to forget:
Admit it Ulster, the one thing you taught me –
horizons can flourish over the blackest
of ground. When trouble sinks into itself,
bells spring up from bulbs in unlikely places.
In “Hard Borders” she shifts her gaze towards the present moment:
A poet spoke of his nation’s mind
as bogland. That same home is mine
and the nature of it was a border,
every name a nerve and every Northern
town a flag staked into sodden ground.
As if knotweed with its noxious seeds,
and roots hard as knuckles, stretches deep
through soil and peat.
In the final stanzas of this poem, Burns subverts the purpose of coded language by combining terms in Irish and Ulster Scots while appealing to the ancient custom of handfasting:
To split Dúchas from Hame is to abscond
Summer to the cloth unravelling, around
our hands held out to be again unbound.
Although these lines drip with disappointment, Burns’s poetry often reflects a hopeful disposition, as shown by her generous appreciation of the final years of Martin McGuinness:
A chief of staff took on an unimaginable role,
conducting and notating symphonies,
to fuse pitch and timbre in melody.
The poem ends on a note worthy of consideration: “we’ve the right to be judged / by our last fermata and al fine note.”
In another lengthy sequence of poems, Burns takes a novel look at the life of Pablo Picasso through the lens of male privilege. Her aim is not a takedown of a cultural icon whom she evidently admires, but rather to view the painter’s career from a modern perspective. And what better way to do this than to bring back the women in the great painter’s life and let them finally have their say? Here are the imagined words of his daughter Maya Picasso:
When you leave, please feed your paint
to the fish. Leave the front door ajar for the wind
to bring me the breeze. …
When you leave, please throw your anchor away,
lose my portraits, burn all those written lines.
Remember from your swaying, wind-blown deck
to point your spinnaker squarely to horizon.
Not all of Burns’s poetry is grand in scope: “Shergar’s Last Race” speculates in a whimsical vein about an imagined life of the stolen racehorse. Other poems take domestic situations as a point of departure and occasionally proffer advice to her children that seems to hold out hope for a future able to overcome some errors of the past. These poems put her concern with global politics in a personal perspective, while others focus on more topical situations, such as the plight of refugees in Europe or the use of child labour:
Bonded to the loom at only ten, you witnessed friends given
to old men, dreamt a priest observe you sign your name.
He’d send you, Dalit, Harijan, far from these Panchami lands
for a private education. But that was just a fantasy.
Her recollection of a lounge in Ulster might be hilarious were it not so poignant:
I learnt my first words of Afrikaans,
Een bis Tien, in an Ulster lounge,
where the copper impala wall clock ticked
Natal time over dusty Willem de Klerk’s.
An ivory ashtray and wall batik
were the backdrop to a centrepiece –
a coffee table with a hide of Kudu
perched on an elephant bull’s foot.
Never again would it go through customs
like you, Mum, leaving at twenty on a liner
to marry in Ireland, back to the Cape
of Good Hope before Mugabe’s men shot
ridgeback farm dogs as warnings.
A noteworthy aspect of Burns’s poetry is, rather than the way she views the world, how the world views her. Living at the margins of the English language with German offspring and spouse, she admits her erudite idiolect may be at times spiced with fractured syntax or diced diction:
I have barely lived
in this land, yet I’ve assumed its anthem,
diluting my old dictions, songs. They lie warm
but mute inside, unspoken. But there is a Vorteil.
When you want to start over, new words have their uses.
That artefacts of linguistic blurriness persist in some of Burns’s poems cheek-by-jowl with inventive neologisms and a plethora of polyglot references says something interesting about the editors, competition judges and publishers who have validated her work while respecting her insistent use of a particular idiolect. Her poetry, timely in form as well as content, reflects her identity as a global writer and Irish poet reporting from the crossroads of the current moment.
Dick Edelstein’s poems have appeared in anthologies in Spain and Ireland, most recently in Autonomy, published to support the Repeal the 8th campaign. He has contributed reviews and articles to journals and web sites in Ireland and the UK.