Oct/Nov 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews


Review by Ann Skea

The Devil's Footprints.
John Burnside.
Jonathan Cape. 2007. 217 pp.
ISBN 9780224074889.

Gift Songs.
John Burnside.
Jonathan Cape. 2007. 92 pp.
ISBN: 0224 07997 2.

The Devil's Footprints is a strange and haunting book written by a poet who seems always to have a sense of some shadowy presence which exists just on the limits of consciousness. That shadow is there in Burnside's poetry and it is there, too, in this novel, where the Devil's footprints of a local Scottish folk-myth frame the story and are paralleled at its end by those of Michael Gardiner, who is its narrator.

Michael's story is both ordinary and extraordinary. Ordinary in that it represents the thoughts of a solitary, introspective man looking back on a seemingly unremarkable childhood and adolescence. Extraordinary, in that at one time in his childhood he killed a boy who had been bullying him and he has carried that secret with him ever since. We know almost from the beginning of the book that he has killed a boy. What we do not know, is how this came about and what people and events in his childhood brought him to do it.

The threads of past and present are woven together in Michael's narrative. A newspaper report of the death of a woman and her two young sons in a burning car throws up old memories and poses new questions. Both lead him to re-visit his past, but also throw him into what he calls a temporary "insanity."

Burnside is a master story-teller, and this story, like the folk-myth with which it begins, has depths and mysteries beneath its surface which reflect the primal instincts of human life and the loves, guilts and fears which drive us all. Michael's description of his life, and of the events and people he remembers most vividly, gradually reveals his character. His sense of being an outsider, his mild alienation from his fellow beings, his fears, justifications, frailties, and his suppressed guilt, all become apparent. But so, too, does his sensitivity to the unique and terrifying beauty of the natural world of the Scottish coast around him, and his sense of belonging to it in some mysterious way. It is this, ultimately, and the long, hard journey he makes through the countryside back to this "home," which cures his insanity. This is a hero's journey to self-knowledge with a difference, for the hero is a very ordinary human being, much like any other.

Gift Songs, Burnside's most recent book of poems, explores this sense of place and belonging further. The title comes from a Shaker belief in the value of songs as gifts. And the Shakers are a group of people who, like Michael Gardiner in Burnside's novel, are outside the general community: Unlike him, however, they are intensely connected to their own community by their particular religious practices.

Gift Songs explores the sort of belonging which comes not only from faith but also from our sense of connection to the natural world. That sense of something other, some mystery present in particular surroundings, in light, music, silence: "phantoms we carry away / from our edited lives."

As always, the rhythm and music of Burnside's poetry has the power to suggest this shadowy presence. This, for me, is its appeal, although it may puzzle others, since the numinous is not something which can be spelt out. Nevertheless, there are simple gifts here, such as the beautiful "Five Animals" poems, as well as more complex meditations. And Burnside crafts his gifts with loving care and with a skill which imbues them with magic.


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