here, “uxtering”, from an Ulster variant of “oxter”, means holding by the armpits and, of course, echoes “anorexia”.
Gamble’s language range, sudden shifts of tone and original use of rhyme are formal strengths and, for me, the best poems in the book use these with a kind of insouciant self-mocking grandeur. It takes considerable aplomb to end a poem addressed to Sophie thus:
Are these the makings of nostalgia? Fuck, I don’t know. But predictable patterns hurt no less for being so. And I am not coming home today, or, even, tomorrow. Sophie.
(Films About Ghosts)
and to begin one:
Take it away, they will say that it was my cat that killed it, but I cannot accept responsibility. Call in the men on their snorting, steaming chargers, dredge up for me the plumy-helmeted ones.
(Meditation on a Dead Pigeon)
This has the tone and movement of Wallace Stevens’ The Emperor of Ice-Cream and has another 12 lines which are unparaphrasable in their range, wit and terror. Several other poems have these qualities — An Emblem Thereof, The Locked Room Mystery, Maighdean Mara, Vigilante, Webs — and there are several near-misses like Perfect with its slack use of “fundamentalist”. Gamble is doing something attempted by few — using a wide range of poetic resources to escape the clutches of realism and render a deeper reality.
This relates to the book’s first section of poems about animals in which Burnhope (a note tells us) seeks the essence of the creature rather than describes it. But the poems don’t respond to the ‘thisness’ of the animals as, for example, Les Murray’s Translations from the Natural World do. Rather they tend to use dead, abstract language as in the quotation above and “Death and the wildlife documentary / have made me lemure-mad; / lemure meaning malevolent / larvaed spirit, larva meaning / not young mayfly / but mask” (Silky Sifaka). Others use Biblical references (Burnhope is a former theology student) as in Sermon on the Mouth about the white rhino (viz Sermon on the Mount) and Water Rail, with Moses, but they are external to the creatures themselves.
The second section has eight abnominals — poems in an acrostic form devised by Andrew Philip. I admire the skill of their construction but find them as involving as sudoku.
Burnhope is a disability activist who has undergone a VP shunt and is a wheelchair user. The book’s third section relates to this experience. I respect the anger that treats Atos’s assessments of disabled people as a mediaeval torture (Ducking the Question) and the emotional suffering rendered so clearly in Up the Clobber Passage. But the anger too often gets in the way of poetry, as in I Still Recoil at the Smell of Fast Mustard which recounts an incident of mindless cruelty in flat language and the poorly focussed satire of religious healing events in Poem in Which I Try to Raise a Photo from its Bed. The one unambiguously fine poem, Deliverance, has been relined since it appeared in Magma and its effect muffled.
Mark Burnhope’s first collection is a disappointment after the promise of his early work. He has moved strongly towards reality and the result is too often like this:
I will in corporate animals into more that I do, in so far as they too are corporeal; they will still command the same intellectual and emotional pull as when I was five…