Enrolling fairies in the revolution

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The cold, Capitalist, post-Christian, mechanistic society created by Newton's worldview prevents us from acknowledging that there are deeper dynamics in nature than meet the human eye, suggests Scottish poet John Burnside.

Animistic belief that all things have a life force coursing through them need not be discarded as irrational. If it helps you muster up a feeling of connection with the earth and nature, that's a bonanza too precious to sacrifice at the altar of sterile rationality. | Pixabay


Source: Wikipedia

John Burnside is one of only two poets to have won both the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Forward Poetry Prize for the same book, Black Cat Bone (2011)

Burnside's work is inspired by his engagement with nature, environment and deep ecology.

I’m sitting with John Burnside in a café in St Andrews, Scotland. The man is vast. He says he suffers from an enlarged heart. When a poet speaks to you of the heart, the four-chambered pump begins to take on eloquent imaginings — “theatre of black”, “bed of pinks”, “clutch of breathlessness”. These are the places he wants to visit — Lake Baikal, Japan, Patagonia. Coffee machines hiss in the background, and every once in a while, a gull swoops low and shrieks.

“I’m 62 now, so I keep thinking, mortality, mortality! Let’s do a few things before we go.”

“Do you believe in ghosts?” I ask.

“Yes and no. Depends how you see it.”

Burnside has won every major poetry prize in the UK. He has published ten books of fiction and three books of nonfiction besides, but he dislikes the adjective prolific. “I didn’t start writing poetry until my late 20s, and prose when I was almost 40, so I feel I’m catching up.” Before becoming a poet he was a systems analyst. He still sees the world in those terms — “your filtration plan works the same as a marshland”, but beyond lies a different vision, more shaman than system, where the hunter and the hunted roam together in fog. Central to Burnside’s vision of poetry is an area of gloaming and shadows and echoes. His fifteenth collection, Still Life With Feeding Snake, has to do with disappearances and erasures. ‘Some things are lost forever. The word for hawk / or blizzard in a mountain dialect.’

He tells me it’s a tragedy that Newton’s vision of the world became the dominant model, all because he was better at mathematics. Goethe had a different vision, he says, a different intelligence, based on the relationship between things. “Spinoza was saying, look first at the world around you, see how it works, then work your way from there. Lao Tzu said the same thing. It’s not a simple, ‘go with the flow baby, hippie thing’; it’s basically, don’t interfere, don’t do anything unnecessary. Look at how things are already happening, and if it doesn’t fit, don’t do it.”

This is the heart, my mother would have said,

an empty grain store on a country road

where anything might shelter for a time

in heavy weather.

When a large, vast man tells you that the place he lives in is full of fairies, you listen. In Jura, where George Orwell lived for a time. In Dunkeld — a place called Fairy Hill, Schiehallion Shuchi… “I see it as the true Scottish religion or spirituality. Underlying the way we live with the world is a kind of pagan animism, and, of course, overlaid on top of that, is a crust of Christianity, and on top of that a post-Christian morality, but also, corrupted now because of commercialism and capitalism.”

I tell him that in India I learned about ghosts from women — servants, grandmothers, neighbour aunties who want to terrify or delight. “The Muskogee writer Joy Harjo calls them Grandmother Stories,” he says. “Because they were settled in these awful little houses in the Reservation, where the only real functioning area was the kitchen because the rest of it was squalid. That’s how we lived as well. [Burnside grew up in a prefab in Cowdenbeath]. You could only warm one room so you’d warm the kitchen. In my grandmother’s house everything was around the range. There was always a pot there with boiling water, and that’s where stories were told, so we associate it with food and warmth and women, because the men were never there.”

Always, I am coming home

from hunting frogs or standing in the swim

of wind between the last dyke


and the sea;

and always, she is there,

in lanternglow,

a light that makes this world believable.

Burnside tells me he’s been going back to Celtic ideas of the relationship to the animal world and the earth, reading about the Brehon Laws, which were the basis for all Celtic societies across Europe, which the English were so keen to stamp out. It was a beautiful legal system, he says. Everything was based on recompense and gifting, not punishment. Women were much more empowered in the decision process. They fought in battle. And yes, the system included fairies and ghosts and cooperation with the spirits of the earth. “Do I believe that a tree has actually got a divine being inside it? Doesn’t matter if I believe it. People think I’m crazy, but if we all acted as if every tree had a divine creature in it, we might look at the world a bit better.

“When I first started writing about fairies and plants and animals, people said, it’s silly, he’s a poet, it’s just fanciful stuff. But this is actually an ethic, and if you look back at history, the vast majority of people who lived on this earth have lived by that ethic. We see everything through this spectrum of dreadfully short-lived capitalist post-Christian society… the Teutonic tribes who lived in the forests of Germany, their power came from their connection to the earth… All the great moments in history, where conflict was resolved, a smaller force used the power of the land around them to overcome the larger force that was oppressing them — like in Cuba. It all comes out of knowing the land, or finding the people to do it. You can enrol the fairies in the revolution, isn’t it?” he laughs. “Why not?”


As children, we were told they came

for our sakes, bringing secrets from the cold,

the loam on their eyes and hands

a kind of blessing,


but now they are here,

in the creases and lines on our skin,

speaking through us to friends we have never seen,

or only to the rain, because it sounds


the way it sounded once, when they were young,


Burnside’s poems are intensely visual. We see the hand-made powder blue fruit bowls, the plain white cloth, the bowl of apples. “I would have been a painter if I’d been any good.”


Crocuses bolt through snow, a new foal

spills into a blear of warmth and straw,

but all the birds he ever knew by name,

lapwings and finches, pintails, the several larks,

are flitting away to the light of a different world,


He comes back to the tragedy of Newton’s dominance, describes Blake’s image of Newton — this gigantic man with callipers in hand, measuring out a landscape of stone. Nothing in the landscape is green. There are no animals. Nothing alive, except this man who looks like the stone he’s measuring out. “Blake understood that Newton was wrong. Everything he did on paper was right, but in terms of applying and creating a vision out of that, it was completely wrong, and we adopted that mechanistic vision of the universe.”


Forgive me if I choose not to believe

the snow would fall like this, were I not here

to see it.

There might be snow, of course, but not like this,

no hush between the fence line and the trees,

no sense of something other close at hand,

my dwindling torch-beam flickering between

a passing indigo and lux aterna.


“Look better,” Burnside seems to be saying. His poetry is against extinction, whether it’s dead Russian cosmonauts, a dead brother, a language, a wife, a house. “In a way, the whole book is about that kind of seeing. Making sure we see not just the things themselves, but the relation between them. This is the key of the book. I wanted to put down the idea of poesy, the original idea of imaginative making and how it relates to magic and meditation and spirituality without using all the usual words. It’s a kind of making, which is partly an invention — but the old word ‘inventio’  actually means ‘a catalogue’, so what invention is, is partly cataloguing the mind and reorganising it. The key thing that poetry does, if it’s done well, is to make us look at what’s actually there in the world — visible or invisible, rather than what we think should be there, or what we think is there. And fairies, in a way, stand for the thing that’s really there in the world; that we dismiss so we can put in our own phantasmagoric invented entities.”


I will not call it vole. It’s something else,

just as the bird is, dead, in the oil and pigment,

and what it is that lingers past the point

where anything is absent, what it is

that slips away, I do not wish to name.

Ansatz. Geist. The shadow in the woods

that isn’t what I know it ought to be,

the shadow in the tide, trailing the boat

for hours, until we notice that it’s gone —

and this is all we have to work with, something far-fetched in the heart’s

geography, a thin path running out

to empty shoreline, miles of reed and sky.


All poem extracts from John Burnside’s Still Life with Feeding Snake (Cape Poetry)

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