Ashland & Vine is the tenth book of fiction by John Burnside, and Still Life with Feeding Snake his fifteenth collection of poetry. An impressive body of work by any standards, and then there are the three memoirs, and the columns for the New Statesman.
‘Writing is what I steal from the usual flow of things,’ Burnside wrote recently in the Guardian, describing working through the enforced wakefulness of sleep-disordered nights. Goodness knows how much he would produce if his writing life was perfect. I wonder though if it’s the sense of liminality in his practice – the hours clawed back in railway stations, the three a.m. poems written over valerian tea, and the temporary fellowships on Jura or in Berlin – that contribute to one of the greatest qualities of his writing. Whatever his genre, there is always a powerful sense of Burnside capturing the thinning of the boundaries between our world and others.
At the beginning of Ashland & Vine, Kate Lambert acknowledges a need to break out of the boredom of her routine: ‘Get drunk, sober up, get paranoid, get drunk again.’ Her film-maker boyfriend Laurits – or at least, they share an apartment, get drunk, and sometimes make love ‘though I’m not sure making love is the right term’ – sends her out to collect stories for an anthropology project. We are nudged very gently into resetting our narrative expectations when we’re told that for Laurits, ‘a story was just the string on which the real pearls were threaded’. Hungover and ‘all too ready to believe in phantoms’, Kate goes to a house, tucked away in trees on Audubon Road, that isn’t on her list. The noise of wood being chopped makes her think of her father, who was part Native American: ‘After the funeral, I kept thinking he would come back. Not alive, like Lazarus, but as a ghost, coming into the house at night from the darkness of the woods, where he had joined the many ghosts of his people.’
Instead of a ghost she finds Jean Culver, a self-confessed old person, who soon strikes a bargain with her. She will tell Kate her story, if Kate promises to stop drinking for five days. The structure of the novel is established; Jean will speak, and Kate will listen. When Jean makes an apparently throwaway comment comparing herself to Melville’s Ishmael, we guess that she might have her own reasons for talking as well. Jean’s success as Scheherazade will be judged by Kate’s sobriety, and after their first meeting, the younger woman leaves feeling as if she is ‘carrying away something more than the promise of a story’. The success of the novel depends on whether the reader feels the same way. I’m drawn to atmosphere and affect over plot twists and turns, and Ashland & Vine met my craving for the former without entirely neglecting the latter; indeed, the final instalment of Jean’s story is the most moving of all.
The realms Burnside conjures for us tend to be strange and sometimes frightening places, whether he is writing about the Arctic Circle or Cowdenbeath. This is his first novel set in America, but if there was any doubt that Ashland & Vine is located firmly in Burnside-World it is dispelled by the appearance of Christina Vogel, a mysterious, childlike young woman who likes to spend the night in Jean Culver’s wooded yard watching the birds. One of the most consistent motifs in the novel is that of haunting, and of haunted houses. Kate recalls finding a house in the woods ‘that became part of my mind, a piece of my imagination, the place where, in stoned reveries and deep, frightening dreams, I sometimes find myself going from room to room, listening for something.’ For Jean, the address that lends its title to the novel is that of the house outside which her father was shot: ‘Ashland and Vine, Ashland and Vine, Ashland and Vine. The words sing in my head, constantly. Like a curse.’
In a larger sense, America itself is haunted. The stories Jean tells of her family traverse histories of the twentieth century – of the atom bomb, and Vietnam, and homegrown, white terrorism – histories that might well be forgotten in a time when people may be unclear about whether JFK was real and assassinated, or a character from a movie. Legitimised atrocity sits alongside personal, sometimes almost invisible, devastation.
Haunting is a hair’s breadth from grief, and the various griefs of the book are beautifully evoked; measured, one might say, as in the Emily Dickinson poem that Kate hears herself recite in one of Laurits’s films. There is a great warmth at the centre of Ashland & Vine, a forgiving domesticity in which friendships can be forged and fried apple pies made. The whisky bottle and kitchen knife do not need to lie within reach. Darkness is present, of course, but it is of a different order to that found ‘at the dark end of the fair’, the alluring but dangerous realm Burnside wrote about in his most recent memoir, I Put a Spell on You. Against it, the pearls threaded along the story of the novel shine and gleam. The joy of reading is akin to the joy of listening. Kate remembers her father lifting her up, as a child, at the edge of the woods, and exhorting her to ‘Listen!’: ‘What he wanted me to listen to was exactly the world I could hear any time, the world I could hear but never attended to.’
If Ashland & Vine is about the attention of listening, the poetry collection Still Life with Feeding Snake dwells on the process of looking. The title poem arrives with an epigraph from Goethe, suggesting that if we can consider a phenomenon in itself, ‘neither desiring nor disliking it’, we may ‘in quiet attentiveness be able to form a clear concept of it, its part, and its relations’. The narrator of the poem, a painter, is told by his wife that ‘somewhere below, / in the crawl space / under his feet’ a snake is swallowing a bird. Sure enough:
it lay, the bird
half-gorged, in spasm, not quite
dead, perhaps, but not quite
Between worlds, in a sense. The realisation is that ‘There was nothing to do here, / nothing to rescue, or kill.’ Objectivity slips away, along with the still life he was working on; looking can bring guilt, or the recognition of suffering. The painter’s role, and perhaps the poet’s, is to keep on looking in a world where ‘anything can be / demoted’ and fall through to what lies below the quotidian:
to some dry pit, beneath the world it loves,
where something darker
than the usual dust
makes good on every tender thing it finds.
There is haunting here too, of various kinds. The first poem, ‘The Beauties of Nature and the Wonders of the World We Live In’, begins with the lines: ‘I’m haunted by the story of a man / who, blind since birth, / was gifted with new sight’. What is inside the man’s head is, one story says, better than the new world he sees. ‘Self Portrait as Blue Baby’ introduces the poet’s brother, who did not return from the hospital as a baby, dying not long after birth. Instead, ‘he went drifting amongst stars / that no one else could see’, into an alternate reality that is delineated in ‘With the Discovery of Cosmic Background Radiation, My Brother Returns from the Hereafter as a Russian Cosmonaut’:
Now you are floating in space,
in your orange suit,
the barest trace of carbon on your skin,
your pockets lined with chalk and orange peel.
The thinning of boundaries is palpable throughout the collection. Lazarus reappears, ‘awake between two worlds’. In ‘To the Snow Queen’:
Children walk home from school in twos and threes
with mandarins and cloves and lengths of ribbon.
some call her name in the dark.
She will never choose them.
At points, the numinous arrives in the everyday. ‘Annunciation in Grey and Black’ describes ‘the silted airport gloom’ of a stalled journey ‘at the edge of the world’, a woman mopping the floor and half-singing to herself, believing she is alone until the moment when she turns to the narrator:
and sees me, sees me right down to the bone
of hurt and lust, a thousand miles from home.
The book ends on a virtuoso piece in three parts, ‘Poem on a Line of George Seferis’: ‘The houses I had they took away from me’. It weaves together different kinds of journey – migration through poverty, transience by desire, flight from war – and gathers many of the motifs of the collection under one roof:
The lives of others, waiting to be witnessed.
The soul as shadow, waiting to be fleshed.
A few years ago, Burnside wrote about Seamus Heaney’s New Selected Poems 1988-2013 in the New Statesman. In ‘Sandstone Keepsake’, the poet realises while strolling on the beach at Inishowen that he is under surveillance: ‘not about to set times wrong or right, / stooping along, one of the venerators’. Burnside argues against Auden’s claim that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’, suggesting that a body of work such as Heaney’s does more than simply witness. While a single poem might be ‘a moral drop in the ocean’, poetry makes compassion happen, and Heaney’s work encourages a form of resistance by dramatising the inner struggle of the poet and venerating the meaningfulness of the everyday. This final poem in Still Life with Feeding Snake reads very much as ‘a moral drop in the ocean’, and the two books taken together amount to rather more. Heaney was writing in the era of Thatcher and Reagan, and it’s an understatement to say that we are not in a better position today. Burnside’s novel and collection come as a timely reminder that to look and to listen is not to be passive. A ‘moral drop’ can at least make a tear trail through the grime.