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TOTAL PAGES: 28 Environment, History, Literature: Materialism as Cultural Ecology in John Burnsides Four Quartets Tom Bristow

In history as in nature, decay is the laboratory of life Karl Marx So death will be a slower, surer fade than any we imagine no mere extinction.. but absolute decay where absence is a form of generation John Burnside

Argument and Context

John Burnsides stoical tenth collection of poetry, Gift Songs (2007),i embodies literary geographic aesthetics to demonstrate how poetry and landscape might interrelate, how one might act as an interface for the other. Centred upon an analysis of the four quartets, which correlate to T. S. Eliots transcendental, macro-imaginative lexis in his canonical quartets (1936-1942), this essay clarifies Burnsides tentative shift from Eliotean tropes towards a material realm. Eliots quartets are all named by places; they concern growth and decay on multiple scales. Moreover, Eliots quartets offer cognitive ways through figural and symbolic oppositions to herald past-presentfuture dynamics. Burnsides quartets follow this model to speak of a cultural ecology over time within an aesthetic realm of self-content poetry that pursues no dramatic or epic purpose but instances richly woven, emotionally charged registers of kinship and humility.


Ecopoetic texts foreground their cultural processes to clarify the idea of composition and making (Greek poiesis) as a crisis of subjectivity in the original sense of crisis: a separation, the power of distinguishing. Ecopoetics asks how are humans -- and their art -- separate from the biosphere; in so doing, ecopoetic artifice demonstrates in what respects a poem may offer degrees of reconstitution or reification of the dwelling place by being sensitive to how poetic consciousness can illuminate or imagine conditions such as settlement and alienation. These questions are central to Burnsides oeuvre. This impulse, scaled-up scientifically, questions how humans fit into the world; it is a poetico-eco-philosophical perception of what science is,ii and it recovers an original sense of scientia, i.e. knowledge. In interviews and readings, the poet has spoken of this redress as a poetic site or an amalgam of text events that challenge knowledge formation by foregrounding the creative imagination in continuum with world, rather than being separate. It is not deconstructive but is an aesthetic that acts as a form of short-circuiting of the normative frame and registers a movement away from the political ground zero of the Imperium.iii There is something critically humanist and non-dualist about Burnsides position, which his four quartets articulate via deep relations between history (cultural memory) and environment (landscape) that point to historical materialist concerns. One example of this is a moment when Burnside redacts his statement on the commune (NyHellesund i.25) as some pledge in the world [that] recurs (i.28):

so everything comes again, in another form, not in the shapes we leave

to the tideless water, not in the phantoms haunting the summer quays like long-dead forebears, fixed in glass and silver, holding the pose of a self, through an already shifting regard, as something away to the left

catches the eye a shadow, an animal presence and whatever they thought they could not do without is quietly abandoned, while the film still runs; (i.29-39)

In the opening stanza, the poems spectatorial and photographic lens is set firmly on a man who hears a boat from afar in one of the sounds of the once populous seventeenth century harbour, Ny-Hellesund. The Sgne municipality in the south of Vest-Adger county, Norway, is now home to less than twenty residents. From the very beginning of the poem, distance and intimacy are central to Burnsides ideas about decline. In the second movement the technological frame slips, missing what is felt (the animal presence): it is a telling moment. An initial reading can be transfixed by the stress on form and shapes offering an elevated or transcendental view. The homonym (sound) is useful for Burnside as this passage slips between sense experience and the imposition of writing and technology (naming) as a barrier to and an enabler of kinship. As indicated by the negative poetics (line openings of not and the recourse to simile) there is a presence of more valid energy underneath these forms, something more intangible than the valued frameworks can circumference. Formations of this energy are disclosed as a deep cultural fabric and invisible

presence within and from nature; the latter, instanced only rarely by the bodily, intuitive response triggered by self-preservation mechanisms that displace cultural

artefacts or tools; it is a wildness -- that I shall come to later -- wherein modalities are quietly abandoned, as marked in the last quatrain. Attunement to this animal presence pierces through the critical meditations on how things are fixed or held: it appears that an original view can promote how new economies of self-in-world are disclosed. The subject, located in a specific place, ruminates on what the body offers of itself | to any journey i.18-19); that is to say, an emphasis on the fleeting and the passing as something valued above the enframed, acts as a philosophical point that colours and conditions a moment in Ny-Hellesund in a particularly sensitive way. This passage reminds readers of an earlier poem Taking Sheila to the Zoology Museumiv where life distilled into a curators taxonomic museology and sterile framing of life -- a negative history -- leaves a lot to be desired for the imaginative pre-pubescent child that the poem names. The shapes we leave | to the tideless water in this quartet, suggests low entropic formations constructed in an unanimated world; a historical formation of the long-dead that stabilise and construct the present, or the self -- or more symbolically, our culture -- is placed under critical light. However, this preconceptualised incarceration of life into history is broken at the line-break and enjambment at line thirty-four; here, the already constructed is moved into the present participle shifting and opens up to further sense experience and historical being, that which is both delineated and detailed in the stanzaic enjambment below. Here, poetic form (line and stanza) underline thematic concerns for containment and fluidity, programmed into that final line still runs as a containing paradox to the logic that ignores the animal presence. It is a simple structuralist technique, but in

Gift Songs it is interlaced with more subtle philosophical ideas on end states and a world continuum that are crystallised within Burnsides explicit, prosaic clarification of depersonalised poetics: not self, but history; not self, but place (i.21). A

cartography of place that displaces the normative human scale attends to the potential problems associated with abstracting from a specific locale, harbouring a risk of losing sensitivity to local forms and realistic calibration to material and environmental conditions -- particularities most valuable and evident at this scale to the natural historian. Thus, to write of the body offering what is of itself and yet to attend to the human scale and to the discourse of natural history is to speak of ownership and selfrepresentation in a manner resonant with ecopoetic artifice, something that I will detail forthwith. It begins with the first step in recalibration:

and I know what it is we are losing, moment by moment, in how the names perpetuate the myth of all they have replaced: windmill and dolmen, meadow and fishermans wharf: a country relearned and forgotten, like the dead who walk among us, waiting for the day to light them, on their journey from the known to the newly strange: to chapel and harbour and hearth, that slow return from memory to birth and everything in between: the sea, the sky, the laughter of women: the music of midsummer mornings. Le Croissic (v)

Under the influence of American poetry and its determined integrity through

amplifying discrete relational sense units, Burnside has worked hard at the triplet, the breath and line of open field poetics, and the list poem. Here, metonymic illustration instantiated by the containing grammar of open clauses (the colon) -- what we might call Burnsidean telescopic extension of tenor -- enables stanzaic associations to resonate at the level of interrelation to which the four quartets are conceptually bound. Scanning across this final stanza one can locate three significant and enduring issues that are central to all four of Burnsides quartets: (i) the double-edged problem of Adamic naming (bringing object into relation, but positing it as an object in the distance, out there and separate from the self); (ii) history as mythmaking likened to the gravitas of cultural forgetting or a deadness of knowledge that is disconnected from a sense of awe and wonder, life distanced from the pre-conceptual and intuitive mind (i.e. phenomenological alertness to the moment in time contrasted with reflective reasoning as reification of dualistic logic); and (iii) the patience of lifeforms operating beyond the human sense of the corporeal, temporal frame, which entertain and are enfolded within the poetic aperture on the broader canvas of historical becoming (one that is depersonalised right through and across). The first two are interrelated; the later is the ecopoetic redress to the second of these, which, in terms resonant with Eliot, makes a value judgment on the intellect as a living entity: it is the elevation of wisdom over information. In this final movement that sets up the last quartet of the collection, NyHellesund, there is something knotty or cluttered and ungraceful on the surface in these elasticised lines that portend intra-stanzaic retrospection.v Equality is granted to windmill and dolmen, | meadow and fishermans wharf and yet the latter being a fusion of labourer and place entails a folding back on the line, or at least, a temporary

compression and conflation compared with the more easily locatable singularities of the labourers, indexed by toponym. It is an array that is further confused by the tension between transcendence and intimacy, underlined by the second theme of history (as identified above). This problem, or site of uneasiness is echoed in that jagged pause and semantic marker, the comma, in the seventh line here -- a little too controlling for the modern reader, perhaps. This knot entails a movement forwards

with an anchor in the past, at the very least in terms of the eyes movement across the poetic lines semantic space. As readers we are pushed and pulled until we arrive at the central and yet understated final array of elements on the last two lines following the fourth colon. This move, a microcosm of the poem, is of interest to those readers aware of Burnsides Heideggerian Heidegger speaks of a primal fourfold (das Geviert) that displaces Cartesian extended substances (a world of rote subjects and objects) for an existential awareness that places humans within an encompassing whole composed of earth, sky, divinities and mortals.vii Burnsides array enfolds sea (not earth) and sky together as a means to setup a distance and to attend to mapping the gap in-between these poles through sensitivity to mortals (women) and seasonal differences to mornings. There is a medium degree of concordance with das Geviert, but a specific temporal moment bound by an enframing calendar has displaced the divinities -- midsummer, before noon. It is a particularity coloured by the light of the place in the poem; the generative poetic line animates this backdrop. Moreover, this is at once: deep relations presenting fleeting appearances to mind that must backtrack and recollect while reviewing human sense-making frameworks projected onto the world (that is actually dynamic with or without human involvement). I shall come back to this aesthetic mode due to its ecocritical significance.

When read alongside the destination of the journey, to the newly strange: qualified by the musical stress to chapel and harbour and hearth, we note poetic threading of this fourfold that entails contiguity between the place of worship to the place of work, and to the idea of resting in the centre of ones dwelling place (hearth).viii It is interesting to note that it is a return from memory to birth; the

quartet is going back in time toward regenerative forces that are known from the point of their passing. Burnside is particularly good with the position of loss as recorded by his lyrical I. In this quartet, this is not an endpoint in time but only a known marker in history, that (as a foundation) is vulnerable to review and reconstitution, so that it will deliver a more meaningful hearth. Far from personal or national nostalgia, this reflection (tied to intense perception as indicated above) relocates a sense of ones depersonalised self in the (ongoing emergence of) world. Interestingly, at a moment when there is great potential to redress earlier ideas on the commune and the kinship of being pledged (above) -- something that would enable the reader to connect to this difficult, Heideggerian ecopoetic -- Burnside locates the lyrical I through critical reflection on the labouring communities use of folk song. This is worth further examination. In Le Croissic, the Loire-Atlantique port (the second visit to Brittany in these quartets) gives way to something Celtic and biographical. In the quartets third section, a persona recalls the song that their uncles and cousins would sing on their way back from the public bar after a days work, tarred with the mines and the shipyards, cradled in smoke, (iii.3). Suddenly, an intertextual cultural jolt comes forth; the poet intentionally adumbrates the section title, Gwenn Ha Du -- Breton for Black and White, the colour of the local flag -- by injecting the Irish sea shanty, The Holy Ground into the opening stanza: and still I live in hope to see | the holy ground

once more.ix The song, which takes its name from the town of Cobh and its red light district, has an irony that Burnside pins to the paradoxical significance and yet

irrelevance of toponyms, in turn undoing the significance of fixed names and echoing the mental diversion that the song offered sailors while performing hard or monotonous and repetitive labour, an attunement to their material lives that leaves them stained with the historical trace (or presence) of their work. This not only promotes history as subjective and gendered narrative, but instances disjunction over graceful contiguity contextualized by appetite, longing, and unfulfillment. The ground, therefore, literally gives way to other ruminations outwith the cartographic signpost:

What they were looking for, then, was another beginning, the black that occasions white, the white in black, an older soul, exhumed from flesh and bone to carry on the ancient narrative of manhood as a song, the savage joy of bagpipe music, pagan memories, a host of kinfolk rising from the sea, a house looming out of the fog and becoming home. (iii.9-18)

The reading of the situation suggests that these figures were in search of something more meaningful than their disembodied love (19) offered to a fictional character (the protagonist in the sea-shanty) and the mythical place. Burnside has set this up to

speak of that animal sense (20) shared between lyrical I and the protagonists placed as subject, i.e. that which comes of holy ground: the hard quotidian (21),


something masculinist and barely present, operating underneath the oppositions that it throws into relief. This has been clarified as the awareness of humans propensity to check violence by the acknowledgement of power relations that are inscribed in terms of an original relation beyond the myth of the autonomous subject (Borthwick) and yet, essentially bodily and therefore a sign of a pledge, or contract to the world. This surface paradox is suggested by the play with monochrome, a binary opposition, which is a subtle critique of nationhood (i.e. Breton) and, by tenuous extension, of superficial Celtic claims of brotherhood. This stance, however unpersuasive, is one that attends to a host of kinfolk raised from the depths, which leads to a house or communal space that is becoming home. Following the general reflections on pagan memories and that indistinct and potentially dead and vague signifier [the] hard quotidian, readers are offered more particularity to help define a relationship between word and object: pit-shafts and docks, harbours and open meadows, | the gap in the hedge, the whisper of running water, | an acre of fog and brambles, all things folded within a note of there passing, it a synchronic system where something is lost | returned in another form, and was barely remembered (22-25). This history, grammatically bound by co-occurrence, suggest the signified as a thing in the world coloured by the animal sense or savage joy that runs deeper than the surface culture and temporal song making. The emphasis on contingency, and relative and hierarchical privileges underscored by temporality, leads to polemical outburst in the next stanza: No permanence is here; no planned Imperium. The holy ground to Burnside in this quartet, redolent with songs of the dead and exhumations of culture, is not a history of human relationship

to place mobilised as a narrative of interactions, but it is the site where nothing


happens (where things are lost and forgotten), a place we can take for home when we understand that it cannot be held by cultural signifiers that indicate superficial heritage bonds in narrow timescapes; ultimately it cannot be taken or given but can only be discovered: it is, therefore, oddly ahistorical. The unique consonance across community, holy nothingness and the Imperium is typical metonymic Burnside deconstructing the symbolic realm. What is unique in this quartet is that it has come from a response to Eliots modernism.

Untimely Meditations

Burnsides slow return (above) suggests a sustained engagement throughout Gift Songs with Eliots opening to the 1943 collection of the quartets, Little Gidding.

Midwinter spring is its own season Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown, Suspended in time, between pole and tropic. When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire, The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches, In windless cold that is the hearts heat, Reflecting in a watery mirror A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon. (i.1-8)

Eliot speaks of informed curiosity, the communication of the dead as something beyond the language of the living, and of cultural perceptions of our engagements


with history and the environment: If you came this way, | Taking any route | starting from anywhere | At any time or at any season | It would always be the same (i.5154). The title refers to a small Anglican community in Huntingdonshire, first delimited in Saxon times. Little Gidding was established by the Church of England ordained deacon, Nicholas Ferrar in the seventeenth century who had moved to the deserted village with his family and restored the abandonded church; the community was later to be scattered during the English Civil War. The geography helps to locate some history beyond Sense and notion (i.55); it crystallises a poetic attempt to write from the position of loss and blankness that we have seen in Burnsides expansive sense of decline; in Eliot this is extended to suggest that each position in the world is related to eternal loss, repetitive degeneration. The place, for Eliot, acted as symbol of humanity's flawed understanding of life, and the cycles of culture and intellectual regeneration of the places in which we dwell. Burnsides slow return is less a journey than it is a re-encounter with things from memory to birth | and everything in between (Le Croissic i, above) and it is contextualised by a metaphysical sense of time where things can be witnessed and experienced as newly strange -- the blindness that Eliot has offered as a starting point from blankness to regeneration. This is Modernist derealization in a nutshell; it is also a replacement of the sacred with something located between the spiritually eternal and its nemesis the atomic clock.x Eliots poem speaks of energies and formations underneath our landscapes surface appearance while also speaking to our heightened navigations; this compares with Burnsides site of tension above, and it is underwritten by the second line that emphasises the sempiternal. That which is enduring constantly and continually; everlasting, eternal (OED), however, has been setup as something unique or local: Midwinter spring has its own season. This acute

liminal moment is not unliike Burnsides less sophisticated injection of temporality that hyphenated or bridged (made distinct and yet connected) the domains of sense experience and historical being (midsummer mornings Ny Hellesund, above). In


Eliot, the passing of one season to another marked by the shortest day of winter is not only potent, but is kinetically supercharged: it is not in the scheme of generation and it is not in times covenant. Access to the sense here within the context of continuum and intimacy that I am indicating -- as en ecopoetic highlighting of interconnectedness within Burnsides cultural ecology -- is difficult and yet it is expressed quite simply: as being of its own season. It is an idea indexed by Eliots placename that helps the reader to entertain a sense of time and space conjoined poetically before it slips into the divisions of prose and logic. The four syllables of Little Gidding are matched in the half-rhymed sempiternal (2) and pentecostal (10),xi which through association evoke a complex cultural-geographic-historical nexus. They focus readers attention upon the possible imagined unity of past, present, and future. The quartet claims that understanding this unity is necessary for salvation; to be alive to eternal time not the schemes and convenants of contemporaneous cultural space. Burnside is not claiming this sense of redemption, but he does learn from this sense of time. His lyric is not concerned with regenerating culture from the hearts heart as with Eliots, but to increase awareness of the historical unfolding of the events in the world that are born of the dynamics between culture and nature. Ecopoetics rarely stray from dialogical formulations, but Burnsides literary merit resides in the seamless transportation across differing scales of dynamics and interrelation. Eliot is offering not merely the idea of expansive, repetitive time, but also the sensation of thinking it, what is known to Modernists as imaginative order. As indicated by an emphasis on time i.e. slow

return, Burnside is keen to emphasise moments between states, passages and


corridors within the unfolding thought space of versification and the poetic line, and physical spaces as points of relations themselves that give rise to and order our experience, that constitute world and bear upon our sense experience. This is best instanced by the movement of mind calibrated to geological time:

No doubt the earth forgets us, as we pass

from here to there: the living and the dead

consanguine, vagrant blurring along the walls

like snowdrifts, or some flicker in the wind,

but this is neither end

nor ressurection, only the subtler work

of being:

birth in mutabilitie (By Pittenweem v.22-36)


The flourishing of the non-Germanic tongue adds intellectual vibrancy to the couplets pointed, short lines; resurrection is only somewhat relatively clunky compared with consanguinity and mutability -- things are never completely smooth in Burnsides poetics. More centrally, the anthropocentric view is diluted by the natural simile after shifting into the terminology of kinship (consanguine); this shift in biological scale from isolated self, to community, to landscape scale is a common expansion in Burnsides shorter lyrics, but in this quartet it resists the hook into a clarified biotope or habitat, and it responds to the implied readers inquiry into how much of this is either material or historical. Something new is happening in Gift Songs. Instead of reaching toward end states and historical monuments, with recourse to the polysyllabic latinate noun offering higher ground from its stresses, the reader is fixed between the poles of end and resurrection, giving something closer to freedom through change over inconstancy. Again, the position of loss must be kept in mind for it raises a new modality to the question of nostalgia. This, we learn, is addressed by a connection to the black | between the pinion and the snow, an odd formation suggesting the primary feathers of a bird (often removed to prevent flight) and a falling of frozen precipitation: symbolic transcendence and material immanence. This is Modernist incoherence entangled in Burnsides dense ecopoetics. To be inbetween the indicator (and yet not an exemplar) of the immobile and the material evidence of changing elements, and to be figured as something producing or reflecting comparatively little light, is certainly a complex idea given only a natural conclusion (42) at which it arrives: navelwort | singing bones | scavenger warmth |

emerging from the cold (43-46). The semantic realm attends to an imaginative and


patient reader who can sustain these images in their mind, simultaneously, as various points of arrival and provisional end states or phenomenological knots in the biotopes temporal (emerging) and contingent (scavenger) dynamics. It needs unpacking. For the black to manifest into the medicinal plant that grows on walls and in niches sparse of other plant growth suggests hardiness and wellbeing (in addition to signifying a resistance to static, sterile borders); to become singing bones is to speak of the past resonating through to the present (another metaphysical inflection of continuum, and of presence through absence); and to be read as scavenger warmth is to restate the hard quotidian in new survivalist and animalist terms, indifferent to all but the appetites. This last point is further complicated for it is not simply inhuman, it is connected to Burnsides poetic apparatus by which this sense of the world bridges the divide between the invisible, eternal fabric and the immanent, material event. Moreover, this latter register, which might indicate humans as animals lacking a spiritual nature, is neither saved by the phenomenological state (warmth / cold) nor the philosophical sense of a gradual beginning or coming forth -- something that is echoed in the poems slow unfolding and relinquished clarity of thought progression and meaning. As the last line to the quartet it should be read with greater significance. A close look suggests that the line itself performs its meaning: emerging from the cold resists a visual rhyme with other line endings in the second half of this section (walls, wind, work, snow, dew, navelwort and warmth) but unity or kinship is physically there in the long O sound of cold matching all these endings yet clearly distinct. It is a delicate moment of visually silent consonance that is yet present in the embodied, temporal form of speaking: what is invisible to the eye is


alive and new (with haunting assonance) to the consciousness contracted to the wild. This difficult, conceptual presence-absence plus continuum conundrum, is represented as an emergence through animation by the recourse to vowel sounds in this section. The shadow of Eliots deep emphasis on regeneration has coloured Burnsides approach; his philosphical abstractions lead from different forms but regularly arrive at a position on our human presence, which intimates something that we read through its difference to us but as context for us. That which endures [is] not sky, not earth or flesh but nothing, though it happens all the time, | end and beginning, | footfall, leaf-fall, silence. (Saint Nazaire v.24-29). That which is unremarkable is in fact the most valuable; the animated subject, symbolic of the poetic mind moving through the topos, is conflated, horizontalised: poetic meter and the bodys movement (footfall) are one. It is the perfect rejoinder to the end of the Le Croissic (v), and its confirms the intellectual freight compressed inside the sense of what we are losing and to be newly strange (above): loss of selfhood as connection to wider relations. In summary, it demonstrates the central idea to Burnsides volume, what it is to be wordlessly pledged | to the alien dead (Le Croissic i.19-20): far from information and focalism, this is subjectivity cradled by a fresh connective contract where one is intuitively anchored on the dynamic earth. I have shown how Eliots examination into cultural rebirth has been reconfigured in Burnsides quartets as an inquiry into terminus and beginning (as with the sequence Ports in The Asylum Dance, 2000). Death and self-representation are conjoined in Gift Songs as a means to refocus geographic and historical inquiries. Dasein is the mood experienced in the face of being-towards death, which for Heidegger cancels the Kantian distinction between how things are and how they are perceived for no such separation exists. Eliot creates a niche that locates the gap


between these; Burnside builds bridges to enable imagined relations and dependencies deriving from these relations. Heideggers project, to recover the transcendental conditions of being human within the quotidian and the particular i.e. the facts of life, seems to have great philosophical and ecological appeal to Burnside. In the four quartets it begins to resonate with Modernist rather than Romantic formulations of poetic mood, which discloses an ecopoetic stance as a comportment to world in its wholeness. Moreover, it foregrounds invariant formal principles by which experience necessarily operates in order to be constitutive: one of these is the retentionalprotentional structure of time-consciousness. This has been indicated in thematic concerns with time and knotty elasticated lines of poetry (above). Burnsides poetry is littered with dispersed structures of consciousness: epiphanies; dreams; memories; meditations. In the four quartets, perhaps due to Burnsides spiritually inspired contemplation on a sense of order learning from Eliot, this phenomenological disclosure of mindscape as poetic and philosophical contour to the lyrical I -- a background to existence -- appears to be offering a fresh philosophical trinity that plays with time. This can be abstracted from the poetics and reformulated as following: (a) a patient waiting towards death; (b) a form of transcendental realism in terms of Heideggerian poetics; (c) a combination of these as a singularity that is the world coming forth on its own terms in which the human and the humans cultural intelligence are constituent and constitutor. This trinity can be restated as Burnsides most explicit indebtedness to Eliots opening quartet. In Heideggers later works, the term Ereignis is used to denote the manmeaning bond. This is not anthropogenic; it is a technical term in his philosophy that refers to the fact of meaning-giving: Gift Songs is working in this area. I am drawing a degree of correlation between this philosophical idea and the human geographic sense

of meaning making i.e. cultural formation through history and education, which Burnside mobilises for political gravitas. This form of meaning-giving requires


human being (brauchen) to belong to (zugehren) and sustain that fundamental fact. Ereignis is understood to appropriate and own (ereignen) man as Beings (Seins) own property (Eigentum): it is not that the world is irrelevant until it is located within our conceptual domain and grasp, but that man is nestled within a contour of existence within which he is implicated. Heideggerian ethics has argued that in addition to this ownership of man by the disclosure of world within timescapes, this event in turn makes possible mans proper authenticity (Eigentlichkeit). Ethical disowning. In terms of ecopoetics we can map two things onto this philosophical logic: firstly, the indicator of world appearing to mind over and above mind-to-world agency; secondly, mind understanding that this claim is afforded by a world that can claim minds attention; it purports that mind is part of the world, dependant upon world, and more ethically, perhaps, that in this relation (fleeting or sustained) mind discloses further evidence of experiences from the perspective of being from the world rather than being of the world.

Zimmermans reading of Heideggers reflections on art and technology, argues that he shows how poetry embodies nature as ontological difference, thereby granting things their own self-defining outline;xii I have located this sense of ownership as that which is afforded by the momentary law, and the animal presence as geographichistorical bond, in Burnsides learning from Eliot that attempts to mark distinction within a continuum.

20 In Eliots opening line, poetic stance as a comportment to world is understood

as this radical ownership (disownership, poverty) that Heidegger indicates: Midwinter spring is its own season (i.1). Quite simply, the importance of the historical and material is articulated by the urgency of things as they present themselves. It is evident in Burnsides four quartets, too.

On the rue de Saille(e accent) a sapling gingko stands

in its own luminescence; (Saint-Nazaire iii.30-33)

Taken on their own these lines are unremarkable. However, they follow a movement in a section of couplets entitled Nocturne, where the quartet is once again concerned with the absolute quiet of home (iii.13) not unlike Eliots suspension and blindness (Little Gidding). A form of deferral colours the mood in this movement where meaning is located in a few lines but is invisible without context. The lyrical voice concerns readers with the moment when a body first crosses the threshold of a houses locked external door -- entering a home -- and further concerned with the experience of eye and mind adjusting to the wave of light in the room that changes at the flick of a light switch. Both events suggest a play of shadows and either a settling or disappearance of forms that once were contained by the dark. This is common ground for the Burnside reader; in Gift Songs this play takes a form of animated symbolism, potent with a synthesis of philosophical dwelling themes indicated above, to enable a new politics of representation:


and something, not quite light, but like

a narrative of light, a simulacrum, golden, intricate

resumes, the way a story is resumed:

table, mirror rose bowl, photograph. (21-28)

I shall read these two selections together. The gingko is notably young and thus a future-oriented mark of progeniture, a begetting. It is given its own semantic realm through the use of deliberate space and couplet formation. It has significant presence. Furthermore, it is accessed via difference and similarity: first, the gingko is outside of the story, and stands as a meaningful spike of nature lending itself to the economy of common cultural currency beyond parameters of the French locale;xiii second, it is wrapped into the poems psychogeographic narrative -- adjusting to the unique spatial arrangements of the ports that are reminiscent of Scottish fishing harbours -- that takes in a chaotic array of adjectives to clarify the bodys adjustment to physical space and technologically enabled zones enlightenment. Headlamps and moonlight radiate in this awakening to how the body and mind adjust to changes in light, as before; only now, the fall of evening is figured as burning out | along the

horizon: nightfall; endlessness (44) and the poem shifts into ideas of decay.


Sustained thinking is required at this point, so too a sense of what precedes the ginko. Stories are picked up and forgotten, but objects on a dressing table (above) persist in time, materially; this juxtaposition meets a holding area in the quartet, the last mauve of evening (44) that exhausts itself to a dying cadence whose long vowel sounds persist, in turn foregrounding another coupling married in sibilance: luminescence and endlessness. In a dense moment of alienation and adjustment, colour and elongation begin to speak of light and eternity as forces that harness both the cultural narratives and the daily objects that surround us, for both are used to place ourselves in the world, momentarily. This illuminates a cultural ecology between narratives and things. It is quite clearly (in Burnsides quartets) a comment on how things are caught in our minds, captured in language, framed by our categories of understanding or embodied in performance; it speaks once more to Heidegger. The site of presentation to Heidegger is time-bound: things present themselves in the parousia of the moment -- a locatedness revealed by a relationship with place, the topos.xiv It is presence in itself, but marks the present as a temporal state distinguished from the past and future, too. Most clearly it is also a waiting towards. For Heidegger, Dasein is waiting towards death; for Eliot, the parousia of Little Gidding is towards eternity through an emphasis on re/degeneration. In Burnsides four quartets, the text event that crystallises these issues resides within and reflects upon the condition of waiting as an instance itself of the slowly unfolding moments in earths history:

To live here is to wait for messengers, though why the angel takes such differing forms

is always a surprise: cowlicks of snow on the threshold, the print of a leaf, tomorrows shipwreck gusting through the town as life continues: shopping, memory, crossing the road in the colourless wake of the dead; (iv.1-7)


Saint Nazaire denotes a small fishing village in Pays de la Loire (Brittany). It is the opening quartet in Gift Songs and it is where we are told that all is in pulverum i.e. moving into the dust of death. This injection of St Lukes Passion (Psalm xxi.30) during a fresh beginning in the collection, is delivered in the section Annonces as a cowlick of snow | on the threshold (iv.3-4) -- a familiar upright mark in nature transported from human head to snowy field: a derealisation technique amplified by the explicit use of threshold to underline fluid human-animal boundaries, an annunciation that is further underlined by the heavy-handed line-break with running on sense. Pulverum, as movement and change towards death, is also figured as the mark of nature and the metaphorical act of nature (shipwreck) commuted by emotive gossip and hearsay of the destruction of mans technology by the forces of nature; narratives abound while the world ignores us. And yet, all this is fundamentally, a surprise (iv.3). It is surprising because it instantiates radical newness that comes from the world operating on its own terms, events that take property of mans being. Looking back at the poem, this state enables the anxiety of waiting and the alarm of surprise to shift into colourless calm. Unforeboding emptiness.

Post-script: Materialist Measures


Heideggers view of dwelling as the intertwining of life within an historical unfolding requires a greater link to biology, it has been argued. Westling writes that Heideggers view is not necessarily congruent with biological evolution as it might be; it is somewhat distant from Merleau-Pontys idea of Brute or Wild Being:

Heidegger resists placing humans fully within the living community, in an anti-Darwinian recoiling from an acknowledgement of our kinship with animals and plants. This human exceptionalism is also an implicit denial of embodiment, for it is our bodies that most obviously link us with the other animals.xv

That which is witnessed in Burnsides metaphorical emphasis on the black within joints, scavenger warmth and the hard quotidian suffers the ontological consequences of embodiment and the interrelation of subject and world. For Westlings Merleau-Ponty, this has lead to the call for the abandonment of the search for essences, alongside acknowledgement of ambiguity, and a radical openness to the wildness of being. Culture, then, is seen as variable and specifically situated within such wildness:

In short, there is no essence, no idea, that does not adhere to a domain of history and geography. Not that it is confined there and inaccessible for the others, but because, like that of nature, the space or time of culture is not surveyable from above, and because the communication from one constituted culture to another occurs

through the wild region wherein they all have originated [] we never have before us pure individuals.xvi


The view that contains a world without pure individuals is also the view that can hold the idea of the non-systematic nature of nature. Gift Songs has alluded to this view without observing non-human creatures. To Merleau-Ponty, meaning is dynamic, participatory and bodily to the world. It is located in the specific situations where we find ourselves at any given moment: points in space do not stand out as objective positions in relation to the objective position occupied by our body; they mark, in our vicinity, the varying range of our aims and gestures.xvii The inference drawn from this is a profound interconnection of bodies, where things and qualities radiate around themselves in a certain spellbound existence detailing how the sentient subject does not posit things as objects but enters into sympathetic relation with them, makes them his own and finds them in his momentary law.xviii To posit world or nature or animals as objects (out there and separate from self) is an ethical and hermeneutic mistake, ecocritically. The momentary law in Burnsides ecopoetic enables the subject to step out of this relation (the animal presence) and reflect on this as a fresh pathway to deeper connections. For Heidegger, dwelling (or the plenitude of Being) is disclosed within an intertwining of life that articulates an historical unfolding, a larger context for life. This ecopoetic coherence can be viewed in Gift Songs as a significant contribution to contemporary literary geography and yet, in the final analysis, it subtends an already engendered economy of transcendental orientation that might understate the materialist advances brought into fresh light by Burnside.

Conversely, Burnsides post-Eliotean reconfiguration of history, nature and


decay within new terms of human comportment might represent an attempt to break away with all existing materialism. Georges Batailles systematic exploration of the nature of economies and the nature of humans has lead to explications of base materialism that informs an understanding of a new materialism. It details an active base matter that disrupts hierarchical oppositions in addition to destabilizing all foundations; further research might show how it would work well with Burnsides space outwith the Imperium. Batailles use of Marx is the platform for ruminations on how base matter is both external and foreign to those aspirations that are ideal to the human.xix Bataille -- and Burnside -- consider the need to turn around the conception of the base, to accept it internally, make it less foreign to the species being, to bring it all back home. For Burnside, this is to resist the sterile, dehumanizing global forces of capitalist hegemony as a first step in rethinking becoming home (above); for Bataille it is the starting point to rethink the liberation of life from the imprisonment and masked pathology of ethics.xx Again, this has loose consonance with Burnside. Twenty years before Gift Songs, Burnsides second collection, Common Knowledge (1991) took its title from a passage of Marxs Contribution to the Critique of Hegels Philosophy of Right (1844) that also acted as an epigraph to Burnsides text.xxi Here, Marx writes on man, religion and his reflections; he claims that a criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism while clarifying the task of philosophy (which is in the service of history):

To unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of

religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.xxii


Both Bataille and Marx are rethinking an historical ethical disposition with a view to material resources and philosophical considerations of ownership and states of order. It is stretching the analysis of Burnsides poetics offered thus far in the critical literature to suggest that his project begins with this unmasking of the holy form of human self-estrangement; however, there is a move to look critically at history and rework a sense of base materialism into the geography that history attends to, as a means to dislocate and yet further implicate human agency in Gift Songs. It is of great risk to stretch the analysis somewhat farther to say that Burnsides ecopoetic advance within positivist and eschatological modes reconfigures this site of encounter as an attunement to estrangement, but readers are witness to an aesthetic that heralds its own sense of selfhood: alienation as dispossession. In Burnsides consistent ecological stance, this is to be expansively communal: to locate ourselves where we do not own the earth but are subjects on it. This is a critical position within which we can sustain an enriched sense of dwelling by uplifting the quality of attention that our momentary law (or reckoning) depends upon for us to experience ourselves enfolded within the life-world.


John Burnside, Gift Songs (London: Jonathan Cape, 2007). Contemporary Science and Contemporary Poetry., ed. R. Crawford, (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006), p. 10. iii William Oxley, Interview with John Burnside, Acumen, 57 (2007), pp.58-65 (p.59). iv John Burnside, the Hoop, (Manchester: Carcanet, 1988). v Playfully, Ny-Hellesund is the last quartet in the cycle, however it was the first to be published (Times Literary Supplement 11 August 2006).


vi See Tom Bristow, Phenomenology, History, Biosemiotics: Heideggerian and Batesonian Poetics in John Burnsides Post-Romantic Process Ecology, Green Letters, 13 (2010), pp.74-94; and Graeme Richardson John Burnsides Poetry: No Ideas But In Somethings, Aret, 10 (2002), pp.133-44. vii See Building, Dwelling, Thinking in Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. by A. Hofstadter (New York: Harper Row, 1971). Despite its explicit claim to human specificity, this text is a major contribution to the history of ideas and the history of philosophy with respect to decentring Hellenistic anthropocentricism. viii Heideggers reading of Hlderlins hymn, The Ister, within the context of what constitutes the political and the national, contends that the hearth is the centre of all homes i.e. existence in time, what has been densely articulated as the emerging-appearing-unfolding of all beings. Martin Heidegger, Hlderlins Hymn The Ister, trans. by William McNeill and Julia Davis, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996). ix Later in the quartets, a fragment of Robert Burns Green Grow the Rashes injects life into an Eliotean circle of rainfall adding Scottish colour to the sum of the following parts in that section: pagan cosmology; human interactions with nature; repetition, newness, refreshment. x John Burnside, A Science of Belonging: Poetry as Ecology in Contemporary Science and Contemporary Poetry, pp.91-106 (p.100). xi Burnside does not speak of the Pentecost in Gift Songs; however, in Feast Days (1992) remembrance of the dead resonates strongly with Eliots meaning by historical sense within the context of an escape from personality [Tradition and Individual Talent] i.e. not anxiety of predecessors but recognition of the pastness of the past [and] of its presence. See T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, Seventh Edition, (London: Methuen, 1950), p. 49. xii Michael E. Zimmerman, Contesting Earths Future: Radical Ecology and Postmodernity, (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1994), pp. 130-131. xiii Gingko is well known as a genus of highly unusual non-flowering plants, including the biloba, a living fossil. xiv Parousia oscillates between substance and being but also draws from the stem that is conjugated with to be. xv Louise Westling, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty: Ecopoetics and the Problem of Humanism in Culture, Creativity and Environment: New Environmentalist Criticism, ed. by Fiona Becket and Terry Gifford (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007), pp.233-47 (p233; p237). Cf. This environment of brute existence and essence is not something mysterious: we never quit it, we have no other environment, from Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, trans. by Alphonso Lingis, ed. by Claude Lefort, (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968), pp. 116-117. xvi Westling, p.233; p.237. xvii Maurice Merleau Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, (London: Taylor and Francis, 1945), p.166. xviii Ibid, p.248. xix The epigraph for my article, cited by Bataille, acts as the paratextual device framing Burnsides four quartets in their published versions in Gift Songs. xx Georges Bataille, The Old Mole and the Prefix Sur in the Words Surhomme and Surrealist [1929], in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings 1927-1939, trans. by Allan Stoekl, Carl R. Lovitt, and Donald M. Leslie, Jr., (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), p32. Furthermore, reading Marxs Lumpen-proletariat, Bataille argues that extreme poverty releases men from the taboos that make human beings of them, not as transgression does, but in a sort of hopelessness, not absolute perhaps, gives the animal impulses free reign, see Erotism: Death and Sensuality, trans. by Mary Dalwood, (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986), p. 135. xxi From Introduction: It is common knowledge that the forest echoes back what you shout into it. Karl Marx, Critique of Hegels Philosophy of Right, trans. by Annette Jolin and Joseph OMalley, ed. by Joseph OMalley, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), p133 (my italics). In some translations this is written out as As the saying goes. Marxs point -- a joke, in fact -- is about Germanomaniacs obsessed with their history to the point that it is conceivable as a force that configures the present, over and above a sense of history where humans are the agents of their situation. xxii Ibid, p.132.