Issue 10

Winter 2014


John Burnside, All One Breath, Cape Poetry, 82pp, £10

This is a long review. I considered abbreviating it, but decided the book deserved all I could say of it, so forgive me if you need a comfort break halfway through.

I think this will win this year’s T.S. Eliot prize. It’s not been nominated yet, of course, and we’ve no idea what the competition will be, so I’m going out on a limb. But, just remember when the time comes, you heard it here first.

Why do I say this? Well, it’s John Burnside, which makes for a good bet to start with. His Black Cat Bone won both the Forward and T.S. Eliot Prizes in 2011. But I think this a better collection. 

Okay, I am sometimes given to enthusiasms, and perhaps this is one such. But I read it pretty much at one sitting and, whilst this is probably not the best way to read a poetry collection, I couldn't really stop reading it.

A better way, perhaps, would be one section at a time (there are four), although they should be read in close proximity, as themes and echoes cross them. For example, the first section, “Self Portrait as Funhouse Mirror”, offers a maze of mirrors, both in concept and imagery. But mirrors arise in later poems, too. Similarly, the first set includes two “self portraits” whilst the fourth set, “Natural History”, contains another, and also contrives to end with the quote which titles the book, itself given in the book’s opening text, an epigraph from Ecclesiastes “For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts.......yea, they have all one breath”. 

This is an extension of Donne’s “no man is an island”, the book carrying the thesis that all living things interconnect. So the integration of some of the imagery and ideas from one part of the book in other parts, the way that different poems “reflect” each other (mirrors suggesting that each identity seen in our own mirror is mirrored in the identities of others) and the way that the volume cycles round to its beginning, as a kind of Finnegans Wake, (which begins with the last part of the sentence whose beginning it ends with, to enact the cycle of history), create interconnections in the poems which mirror the interconnections of all living things.

That’s not to say that individual poems cannot stand alone. No, pretty much every poem has its own backbone, its own power, and can be lifted from the volume without loss. One of my favourites is “Peregrines”, which connects human predation with that of the birds: “Soon they will kill the birds that breed in the quarry...”, encodes that human/animal greed through a simple message of social conscience, and ties our underlying desires, which lead us to destroy what we admire, as both desire and fear (perhaps even as fear of that desire) in the ambiguity of its ending:

while we stand and wait
for the flicker of sky in our bones
that is almost flight.

Apart from the absolute beauty of such lines, they are full of risk and ambiguity: how does sky “flicker”? how can sky be “in our bones”? why is that a sense of “almost flight”? is that the flight of fear, the swoop of the peregrine’s kill, or the mere desire for freedom, the opened sky? 

Burnside’s exploration of selfhood also entails considering its dissolution. Self dissolves in belonging, to a partner, to a group. So in “First Signs of Aging” he considers his preference for “the moment’s absence” over “the glimmer of the herd instinct”, adopting the position of the outsider: “I know, the way a blind man knows the house / he lives in.” As other poets have said, a special kind of sight is given the outsider, that of the “steps and echoes” unperceived by those who make and constitute the house he inhabits.

The self dissolves in death, too. Fear of death is, as one of the epigraphs claims, the one “universal constant”, the destruction of the self. But if we manage to accept the tenuous self as illusion, all done with mirrors, as a cipher constructed by desire, we dispense with fate and the fear of death for we fade at our edges into other life. 

His intertwining of ideas and imagery does not have to be resolved – this is poetry not philosophy. Across the volume there are fascinating echoes and, given the many mirrors, reflections which we can note or not, miss or muse over. Some are small, such as the hint that the cradle nurtures pain, firstly with the stark image of the rib-cage of a dead coyote:

the viscera
scraped from the crib of bone 

(Instructions for a Sky Burial)

(I love here the elision that places “rib” within “crib”). 

then as a nest, which is home, nurturing:

a crib
of thorn and elder, ready for the first
good snow


to the recurrent motif of almost-song. Birds are silent in defeat “flag-white egrets in the trees / flailing....but silent” (the white flag of surrender, the haphazard movement of “flailing” encasing “failing”). Love is a half-remembered popsong, the word, like the song, inadequate to the emotion (“All You Need”). The naive poet in his youth desires the expressive glory of a pure and personal song, but finds that the best he can reach is an indistinct stirring, a half realisation like a bird, almost silent, under the eggshell of his skin:

the inference of matter

beating at my hand, more animal than faint
unravel, come to life beneath the skin

and tapping, softly, for the first drawn breath,
a muss of down, a beak, a nub of wing.


In the final poem, we have the full song of “Choir”. Here is the act of belonging, where the song is social, where the singer is in harmony with everyone about him. Or, apparently so. In fact, this poet is miming his words, his voice having broken, so his social song is a pretence, a mutually maintained pact between himself and the choirmaster:

and all that time he kept
my secret, each of us
pretending not to know the other knew.
I mouthed the words


There’s a clear irony here. The volume tells us, over and again, that we are all one breath, and the expression of it is in song, the choir. But the poet who can see this, like the blind man who knows his house differently from the rest of us, can only belong by pretending to belong. The book ends:

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.