Richie McCaffery looks at the poetry of Elizabeth Burns
Elizabeth Burns died relatively young, of cancer, in 2015. She was only in her late 50s yet she had been an admired and valued presence on the poetry scenes of Edinburgh and Lancaster, her adopted home, since at least the mid-1980s. Instead of an order of service at her funeral, there was a keepsake printed of her poem ‘This life’ which contains many of Burns’s key and recurrent themes – the emphasis on light amid darkness, the spectre of WW2, her pure and lyrical capacity for wonder at everyday things and her determination to leave a legacy of witness in the form of poetry:
[…] the luscious world
still there, offering itself up to us over and over
again; not an afterlife, not something dangled
in the future – those fields of asphodel – with absences,
abstractions, but this life with its city streets,
its fizz and mix and mess, its rush of sweet-pea scent,
the lightness of their petals, their brief and lovely bloom.
Burns’s first collection, in 1986, was a simple trifold pamphlet titled Poems and, while this article will show Burns’s evolution as a poet, it’s clear from the very start that Burns was enduringly interested in the motifs apparent in ‘This life’, quoted above. Also, crucially, it shows how Burns was keen, in her own words, to explore “women’s ways of seeing and writing”, as in ‘Sisters’, for example:
Even when she moved
five hundred miles away
telepathy was alive between them
and love as strong as ever
Even before the letter
saying, between the lines, ‘come’,
she is on her way
Burns’s early poems also show an acute social and political conscience which never left her but became less explicit and more implicit as she deepened and developed as a poet. Here are two haikus for ‘Hereford cathedral’:
The church would not plant
a cherry tree in memory
They said it would spoil
the lawn which is an area
To return to the important strand in Burns’s work of solidarity with, and keeping the company of, women, Burns’s first full collection is Ophelia and other poems (Polygon, 1991), and the poems in its pages evoke the spirits of eponymous Ophelia, Sylvia Plath, St Catherine, Valda Trevlyn (doomed to be forever known as “the wife of Hugh MacDiarmid”), Georgia O’Keefe, and others. In subsequent collections we also encounter Winifred Nicholson, Gwen John, Lucie Rie, Katherine Mansfield, Dorothy Wordsworth and Barbara Hepworth. This focus on the narratives and achievements of women makes a salutary change, coming, as it does, out of the smoky, blokey pub of the Scottish Literary Renaissance. Yet, even in the early 1990s, Burns tells us that there is a sign in the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh saying “Baby carriages are not allowed in the plant houses”. The schema of the English language calls looking after the land ‘husbandry’, so we can see that Burns is up against something profoundly hegemonic in the makeup of our society. In ‘Work and art / We are building a civilisation’ the speaker asks the reader:
Why in museums
are spacious airy rooms
given up with the bulging statues
of naked men [?]
They will know us by what remains
what is preserved
and what restored
Burns lets us know in no uncertain terms what was at stake for women historically who wanted to learn, wanted to read and write. In ‘The Oddity’ we are invited into a country house in the Georgian / Victorian era and introduced to an upper-class woman who wants to use the ancestral library, but this is a house “under the thumb / of the chimes of the grandfather clock”:
Soon there will be apron-smothered giggles
outside her door: she will rise
stuff the keyhole with a handkerchief
to block the peering eyes
then draw the shades against the lilac sky
and in thin dusk-light, take ink,
begin, in copperplate,
though hot tears plop, and blot the page,
and voices batter at her head
like scatty moths, to write.
Burns’s second full collection, The Gift of Light (Diehard, 1999), again consistently considers the position of women in a largely patriarchal world, but there are other nuances that come to the surface. The poems are still directly polemical in their engagement with various sorts of oppression, but latter poems such as ‘Flowers for her’ imply more than their surface meaning, a missing gravestone emblematic of the absence of accounts of women in history:
Since she has no gravestone,
no letters carved in marble
spelling out her name
I walk this dusty east-wind town
searching for some other place
to lay down flowers for her.
More confrontational poems concern the Clearances and the systematic persecution of Gaelic culture by elite English-speaking settlers. In ‘The forbidden language’ a young schoolgirl is punished by her dominie (teacher) for daring to speak her mother-tongue and so she plans her revenge:
She plots that when she’s a woman
she’ll dig up all the island’s graves
and hang a hundred clanking skulls
about his gawky English-speaking neck
and hurling every curse her language knows
she’ll drag him to the highest cliff
pitch him into the pincers of rocks
the gaping grin of the minch.
Some of the poems present a deeply class fractured society in both persuasive and subversive ways. Compare, for instance, Tom Leonard’s ‘Six O’clock News’ with the controlled anger of Burns’s ‘Visiting the Dentist in the 1990s’:
Fill out the forms: sign here
if you are poor. This is how
we choose your filling.
The dentist is prying
in your mouth
Take the anaesthetic, grow numb
to the pain. Ask no questions.
Keep your mouth closed.
By the time The Gift of Light was published in 1999 Burns had already crossed the border and settled in Lancaster where she taught creative writing. Lancaster being well-known for its pottery, Burns would become fascinated by clay and china and the processes of its creation, these “lovely fragments of history” (‘Unearthed’). This is one of the main themes in her 2010 collection Held.
Burns’s early poems show an acute social and political conscience which never left her but became less explicit and more implicit as she deepened and developed as a poet
For most of the 2000s, Burns published small but beautiful pamphlets via the Orcadian private press Galdragon; it wasn’t until 2007 that The Lantern Bearers emerged from Shoestring Press. These are luminous, lustrous and lyrical poems that celebrate light and it’s worth pointing out that nearly all of Burns’s poems are in a celebratory or panegyrical mode, even when they are elegies for the dead. It is in this collection, I feel, that Burns really begins to revel in the secular, everyday miracles that are all around us. Here is last stanza of a poem on the birth of her daughter, ‘The Curtain’:
We left the purplish curtain there, twisted it in daytime
into swathes, so that all those hot sleepy afternoons
as we dozed milkily, calm now, on clean sheets
and with the scent of lilies in the room,
the sun washed through shot-silk, stippling the walls
with colour, as if from stained glass,
and brushed your new skin, soft with vernix,
dappling you with lavender-coloured light.
The first section of the book comes from the rich wellspring of Burns’s “sweet honey of motherlove” while shadows cast some gloom on the middle section, which is about what comes as “the price of light”, the Manichean drama of light versus darkness. But even in the midst of the deaths of loved ones, we find an old relative whose hair has not lost all its colour, only faded like the leaves of “the copper beech” (‘The Alteration’) and a grandfather is remembered for adding the treasured word “doolichter” (what we would call a “dutt” in North East England) to the speaker’s vocabulary, an old word “now suddenly free, / spreading its wings again, / alighting on us all like a dove” (“doo” being Scots for “dove”). There is also cause for hope when Burns’s family find themselves on ‘Holiday in Scotland, 1st July 1999’,
The day the parliament was opened
and was found to contain song and poetry
– things you want from a land.
With Held (Polygon, 2010), Burns’s fourth book-length collection, two principal themes come to the fore – that of using pottery and vessels as an objective correlative for life and the human body, and Burns’s zen-like preoccupation with the idea of connectedness, unity, something the Ancient Greeks called “henosis”. In ‘An eighteenth-century experiment’ we are asked if we’d know the difference between two eggs with different coloured shells if they were broken into the same bowl. Life for Burns comes across as a tissue of blessed connections; our spirit, our pneuma, is held by the receptacles of our bodies, and we make things in our own image, as in the title poem ‘Held’:
We are baskets and makers of baskets,
and fresh from the hold of the womb
the boy-child’s discovering how things
are held by other things: milk in a cup,
food in a bowl, a ball in his hands,
a stone in water, water in a nest of stones.
Of course, this interrelationship between all things has its nasty side too, which Burns explores in the poem ‘Transport’, how the journey of the carts carrying gunpowder for a war in another country had every aspect of the transport meticulously planned, even down to the horses wearing copper shoes so that they didn’t ignite the power with sparks on cobblestones. There are harrowing poems about the Holocaust, but Burns reminds us that anything is preferable in poetry to “amnesia, the blackout curtain” (‘The Kennel’). There are more elegies for loved ones but these again accentuate the speaker’s gratitude for the life had, and imply that while we are alive, if we are receptive to things, the world can make us “ache with happiness” (‘In the butterfly house’) and when we consider our mortality “the last daylight” (‘Last’) suddenly becomes precious in its finiteness.
These are luminous, lustrous and lyrical poems that celebrate light … nearly all of Burns’s poems are in a celebratory or panegyrical mode, even when they are elegies for the dead
For the remainder of Burns’s life, the mantle of publishing her work was laudably taken up by Mike Barlow of Wayleave Press. Burns lived to see two more pamphlets published – A Scarlet Thread (2014), a series of ekphrastic responses to the works of Scottish artist Anne Redpath, and Clay (2015), a continuation of Burns’s fixation on pottery and also with ekphrastic responses to works by potters such as Lucie Rie, Elspeth Owen and others. These pamphlets amply dispel any snobbery people may feel towards ekphrastic poetry being something, like translation, that the poet does to keep their hand in when they have no direct inspiration for their own work. Burns here makes art from art in a vital and symbiotic way. In A Scarlet Thread the speaker celebrates colour, like Redpath did, in defiance of the drabness of her times:
All those dour, post-war years, she painted brightness,
a glimpse of something bolder, full of possibility
– you might paint your own chair orange, wear red slippers –
her colours like flecks in tweed, flowing through darkness.
After Burns’s premature and tragic death in 2015, Mike Barlow brought out Plum (2016), a pamphlet-length poem on the lifecycle through the seasons of a plum tree. Precise, deft and painterly, with language at once immediate and radiant, this poem, like all of Burns’s poems, cannot be taken simply at face value. It is not just about the tree but about all creative processes, and about the life of the poet herself – in her later years there was a great efflorescence in the quality and quantity of Burns’s poems, and they are left behind to germinate and take root in the imagination of whoever is lucky enough to discover and read them.
It’s a great shame that many of Burns’s collections are now out of print and not better known. Even her valedictory Lightkeepers (Wayleave Press, 2016) has (rightly and justly) sold out, though is still available second-hand. Perhaps now is the time, nearly seven years on from her death, to consider a Collected Poems volume. Lightkeepers is arguably Burns’s most achieved and synthesised work for its incorporation of every major theme I have discussed. When the book appeared I was very touched to find a quotation on the back-cover taken from my review of Clay: ‘The overriding sense I have of these poems is as givers and bringers of light […] something of her spirit is contained in what she has created’. I stand by those words to this day but would argue that everything of Burns is contained in these poems, these ‘parcel[s] of light’ (‘Gifts’).
The collection begins in illness, in ‘The Recovery Room’ but even considering the gravity of Burns’s condition, she chooses to dwell instead in the light, and emphasise the things that make us universally bonded:
[…] what divides us
from the past and elsewhere, and from each other,
falls away, and everything’s connected and we are all
drops of water in this enormous breaking wave.
(from ‘Listening to Bach’s B Minor Mass in the kitchen’)
In ‘The eggs’ the poet sees the “freight of possibility” of ten dozen duck eggs on the doorstep, so she shares them with neighbours and receives baked goods in return; there’s a wonderful balance and reciprocity to Burns’s poems here, born of a genuine peace and contentment with her lot. You also get a strong sense of spiritual kinship in ‘Cupboard’:
[…] Everything is inside everything else,
the way her grandmother is inside her (the shape of her nose,
her fingernails, how they are both content in the quiet of the church)
and inside her grandmother is another grandmother and so on,
back to people who opened the oak door when it was new.
In ‘Midsummer sundial’ the speaker imagines themselves as the gnomon on an old sundial “and so many hours of daylight still to come” even though Burns herself must have known that the light was finite for her. These are courageous and luminous poems that, in Burns’s own words in the final line of the title poem, “take what light we can to keep us through the night”.