Poetry Review: Black Cat Bone by John Burnside and Bird-Woman by Em Strang

Books - Black Cat Bone by John Burnside and Bird-Woman by Em StrangI have had John Burnside’s collection Black Cat Bone on loan from the library for nearly a year now, and I keep returning to his long poem ‘The Fair Chase’. There’s something mesmerising about it, not just in the compelling rhythm, but also in a narrative that never seems to end. On the one hand, it is a depiction of hunting that seems violent and bloody. On the other hand, it is a kind of doomed, ongoing quest towards a deeper understanding of the self, which can never be fully realised, reminiscent of both Actaeon and the Ancient Mariner.    

The poem is written in simple tercets. Here are the opening verses:

What we were after there, in the horn and vellum
shadows of the wood behind our house,
I never knew.

At times it felt like bliss, at times
a run of musk and terror, gone to ground
in broken wisps of ceresin and chrism,

but now and then the beast was almost there,
glimpsed through the trees,
or lifting its head from a stream

The protagonist of the poem departs along ‘a road less-travelled’, makes his kill (or so it seems) and ends up in an other-worldly forest:

Nobody lives here now, not even me,
and yet the house is mine – a net of dreams

I borrowed the book for my PhD work, drawn by my interest in ekphrasis (poetry responding to artwork) and the fact that this collection is linked with the paintings of Pieter Brueghel. There is a detail from his ‘Hunters in the Snow’ painting on the front cover of the book, and Burnside’s poem feels like a constantly moving version of that painting.

Em Strang’s Bird-Woman has a similar feel of going deeper into nature, and into one’s own self. The title poem is unnerving. You don’t quite know what is metaphor and what is not, what is woman, and what is bird:

The bird-woman is in the field in her blue dress,
small bird wrapped in a rag of cotton in her hand,
legs like twigs, throat between songs.

The sunlight is squeezing her, squeezing the field-grass
until her blue dress is a distant boat
and the field is the sea,

These are poems that merge human and animal, sea and sky, reality and dreams. And there are haunting echos of Burnside’s poetry in some of Strang’s poems, including ‘The Woodchester Beast’:

Somewhere in the soft woods,
deep in the purple fuzz of trees and brambles,
the big cat is prowling, each paw
the size of a human face.

The beast does not meet with a happy end, and there is a strong sense of violence and anger, along with a sense of being caught between two worlds that can be equally vicious: the human world and the natural world.

The collection ends with ‘Stone’, a long poem originally published in a pamphlet. Like Burnside’s ‘The Fair Chase’ it seems to be a quest. The protagonist searches for something (horses, a father, a place of refuge perhaps) and ends up crossing the boundaries between worlds, into a wintery landscape:

I peeled potatoes at the kitchen sink
but the knife was too big for my hands
and it slipped
I slipped.

The next thing I know,
I’m in a land where there’s nothing but trees.
I rub my eyes and blink
but it’s real and there’s snow on the ground;
there’s no blood and I’m standing
with a stone in my fist.

These two collections, though different in style, share a similar sense of unappeased yearning, slipping from one world to another, and back again.

Bird-Woman by Em Strang is published by Shearsman Books

Black Cat Bone by John Burnside is published by Cape

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