John Burnside’s remarkable new book is full of strange, unnerving poems that hang in the memory like a myth or a song. These are poems of thwarted love and disappointment, of raw desire, of the stalking beast, ‘eye-teeth/and muzzle/coated with blood’; poems that recognise ‘we have too much to gain from the gods, and this is why/they fail to love us’; poems that tell of an obsessive lover coming to grief in a sequence that echoes the old murder ballads, or of a hunter losing himself in the woods while pursuing an unknown and possibly unknowable quarry.
Drawing on sources as various as the paintings of Pieter Brueghel and the lyrics of Delta blues, Black Cat Bone examines varieties of love, faith, hope and illusion, to suggest an unusual possibility: that when the search for what we expected to find – in the forest or in our own hearts – ends in failure, we can now begin the hard and disciplined quest for what is actually there.
Full of risk and wonder, Black Cat Bone shows the range of Burnside’s abilities, but also strikes out for new territories. He remains consistently, though, one of our finest living lyric poets and each of these astonishing poems is as clear and memorable as ‘a silver bracelet//falling for days/through an inch and a half/of ice’.