John Burnside

John Burnside’s latest collection is Still Life with Feeding Snake.

Two Poems

John Burnside, 1 July 2021


(In memoriam J.P.)

Morning in lockdown. Shadows in the yard,Quink-blue and graduallyshifting, like those eels we used to seeabove the weir, thickwhipcords of lustand instinct, surgingheadlong through the mystery of grass.Forty years on, but all I have to dois close my eyes to see youcycling to Cherry Hinton in that dust-greyskirt you used to wear, the dawn lightfollowing the river back to...

Poem: ‘The Night Ferry’

John Burnside, 17 December 2020

Had I been less prepared, I would have leftin springtime, when the plum tree in the yardwas still in bloom,the windows open after months of snow,one magpie in the roadand then another.

I could have slipped away, late afternoon,while everyone was busy somewhere else,the fish van at the corner, childrendawdling home from schoolin twos and threes, a porch lightlit against the dusk on Tollbooth...

Three Poems

John Burnside, 12 September 2019

Whoso List to Hunt

Small comfort to be had in mea culpa, damp afternoons, just shy of saccharin, a boyhood in the rain rescripted as a child’s compendium of minor sins. No subtlety of eyes around my bed; no whispered blame, no frost-fall in the blood, but later, when I lay me down to sleep and all the lamps burn out across the yards, I come home to the sadness of the creatures: our...

Poem: ‘At Notre Dame de Reims’

John Burnside, 4 April 2019

the snake is a snake;

but the toad has a human face, in the hidden gallery under the roof, where the masons

practised their art, away from the bishops and kings.

We’ve seen this much before (in Salisbury, say, or that chapel above the Esk

at Rosslyn): a refuge for the pagan in the chill

of Christendom, a Green Man in the fabric of the stone; a running

boar; the sacred hare; or else


Poem: ‘Want of Understanding’

John Burnside, 22 November 2018

NRS 125.330: Want of understanding. When either of the parties to a marriage for want of understanding shall be incapable of assenting thereto, the marriage shall be void from the time its nullity shall be declared by a court of competent authority.

Conditions for the Dissolution of Marriage under the Nevada State Legislature

When it no longer smells like an orchard standing all around me...

Diary: Visits from the Night Hag

John Burnside, 27 September 2018

‘I’m sorry​, but you have to leave now.’ I am in a café. I don’t know the name, I just walked in and found a place to sit down, tired from an afternoon of traipsing around a city that has always been a bit much for me: too polluted, too noisy, too crowded. Now, however, that fatigue is turning into an inexplicable but near overwhelming lethargy, and I am...

Two Poems

John Burnside, 7 September 2017


To the make of a piper go seven years of his own learning and seven generations before … At the end of his seven years, one born to it will stand at the start of knowledge, and lending a fond ear to the drone, he may have parley with old folks of old affairs.

Neil Munro, ‘The Lost Pibroch’

We were talking about the hills when the land fell silent.

By that...

Poem: ‘Wedding Season’

John Burnside, 17 August 2017

Die Musik bei einem Hochzeitszug erinnert mich immeran die Musik von Soldaten, die in den Krieg ziehen.


June will continue white, with outbreaks of rice; though, given the numbers, it’s difficult not to assume

that one of these persons now present will soon take the cure in a series of high-ceilinged rooms that was once

The Merchant’s House, at the heart of an Alpine...

There is no evidence that Rimbaud ever visited Scarborough. Graham Robb

At times, it feels like someone else’s dream, copious rain, when it comes, and the sense of Paraclete in every tongue of flame and hymnsong in the sky above the fen;

and nightfall, in the gaps between the hills, is quick and unrelenting, like the mouth that glides out from the ditch, no voice to tell what...

Poem: ‘To the Snow Queen’

John Burnside, 22 September 2016

Quest’è ’l verno, ma tal che gioia apporte

Antonio Vivaldi

If you think she exists like that, you should think again. It’s winter now, and love is not the question.

Children see wolves through the trees and the beauty astounds them.Winter, they say; it’s winter, and joy is the question.

Mistake her for what you will: when she stands in your path at evening,...

for Lucas

There is too much light in the world to bear the weight of Euclid, too much fog, with shore birds, bright in the salt-water channels thinning the sands, the Black-Tailed

Godwit, the Curlew Sandpiper, named from the field guide, but still uncertain, still defiantly heraldic.

I’ve lived through days like these before and scarcely noticed, skylarks hidden in my sleeves,...

The body as the sum of all nostalgias. Empire of footfalls; Mother as Script and Ideal

– and love no chance event, no accidental stir of wings, or blueprint spiked with hospice.

What hymn tunes come to mind at Candlemas, the fence wires rimmed with ice,

our plum trees medieval in the first blue gloaming?

What carol for the kill-site, sodden plumage scattered in the grass, and beautiful?

Poem: ‘George and the Dragon’

John Burnside, 22 October 2015

This killing will never stop.                    It’s not enough to slay the beast, he has to make it clear how calm his loathing is, how utterly devoid of fellow feeling;

and though she is present, the woman is incidental; whatever he hoped in the past, he’s not here, now, for the wet...

Always, I am coming home from hunting frogs or standing in the swim of wind beneath the last dyke and the sea;                   and, always, she is there, in lanternglow, a light that makes this world believable.

My eyes turned from the snuff of paraffin and darkness in that house so long ago, I barely...

Two Poems

John Burnside, 19 March 2015

Hendrick Avercamp (1585-1634): A Standing Man Watching a Skating Boy

No doubt, in a year or two, this child will be gone; rumours of war in the air and boys at that age always impatient for something. The wide road that leads to the pond runs all the way out to the press gang – you can almost taste the glare of blood, the panic in the ranks, the dead laid out in seams of fire or lye (

Poem: ‘The Lazarus Taxa’

John Burnside, 5 February 2015

                              Still they stood, A great wave from it going over them, As if the earth in one unlooked-for favour Had made them certain earth returned their love.

Robert Frost

If anything is safe to love, it is

the jellyfish,

Diary: Death and Photography

John Burnside, 18 December 2014

I am waiting​ for a plane at Newark. Time was when anywhere in an airport was a good place to read, or just to go slack and empty, to be nobody in particular and, by that token, more specifically yourself. Now, there are TVs everywhere, placed so that, as I wander out of earshot of one, I come to the next, the news of the latest atrocity or government scandal following me from point to...

Three Poems

John Burnside, 11 September 2014


There is a kind of sleep that falls for days on end, the foothills lost in cloud, rain in the stairwells, rainspots crossing the floor of the Catholic church

and the sense of a former life at the back of our minds, as if the dead had gathered here in shapes that seemed at least familiar, if not perfect.

As children, we were told they came for our sakes, bringing secrets from...

Poem: ‘Erosion’

John Burnside, 5 December 2013

For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone;and the place thereof shall know it no more....

Three Poems

John Burnside, 12 September 2013

Self-Portrait as Picture Window

First day of snow, the low sun glinting on the gate post where a single Teviot ewe is licking frost-melt from the bars, the other sheep away in the lower field, the light on the crusted meadow grass that makes me think of unripe plums so local an event it seems, for one long breath, that time might stop; or, better, that it isn’t me at all who stands...

A Winter Mind

John Burnside, 25 April 2013

As a teenager, I spent many hours in the section of the library where the art books were kept, partly to be out of the house and away from where anyone might track me down, and partly because I was searching for an ideal of cleanness, a personal Elysium. It probably goes without saying that Corby reference library had a rather limited collection of art books, and in many of those it did...

Three Poems

John Burnside, 30 August 2012

A Frost Fair

That old cliché: it seemed that time had stopped;

and people we thought we knew came quietly out of the cold

to meet us. Some of us thought

it had something to do with the sun, and some, with how the planets were aligned,

but later, when the river froze for miles, we took our first crazed steps into an air

we’d never breathed till then, our strange companions smiling,...

Alone: Lost in the Tundra

John Burnside, 9 February 2012

Quite early one May morning, in the last days of a subarctic winter, I strayed from a marked trail I had been walking for just under two hours and discovered I was lost in the north Norwegian tundra. It was something that never should have happened: 99 times out of a hundred, I am a sensible, even cautious wanderer, but that morning, in an odd mood I couldn’t explain other than to say,...

Two Poems

John Burnside, 26 January 2012

At My Father’s Funeral

The idea that the body as well as the soul was immortal was probably linked on to a very primitive belief regarding the dead, and one shared by many peoples, that they lived on in the grave. This conception was never forgotten, even in regions where the theory of a distant land of the dead was evolved, or where the body was consumed by fire before burial. It...

Two Poems

John Burnside, 28 July 2011

Down by the River

El muro cano Va a imponerme su ley, no su accidente.

         Jorge Guillén

She dies in a local flurry of dismay as kittens do, held steady in a pail of icy water,

never what I intended, more a case of inattentiveness than grief or rage,

I held her in the current, fingers wound with shift and slither.

It wasn’t personal....

Two Poems

John Burnside, 30 June 2011


Like something out of Brueghel, maned in white and hungry like the dark, the bat ears pricked, the face a grey

velour, more cat than dog, less caracal than fanalouc or civet –

here is the patron beast of all who love the night: waking at dusk to anatomy’s blunt hosanna,

the carrion daylight broken then picked to the bone while the radio dance band fades to a slow alleluia,


I put a spell on you: Murder in Corby

John Burnside, 2 June 2011

In the spring of 1958, my family moved from a rat-haunted tenement on King Street to one of the last remaining prefabs in Cowdenbeath. It was a move up, in most ways; the prefabs had been built as temporary wartime accommodation but, to my child’s mind at least, the cold and the damp, the putty-tainted pools of condensation on winter mornings and the airless heat of August afternoons...

Poem: ‘Narrative’

John Burnside, 17 March 2011

Was it Leon, your cousin, or Leon, the tow-headed boy with the scar like a crescent moon beneath his ear you dated for almost a year in that backwater town where you lived when you lived with your father? Or was it someone else rigged up the boat to drag a skier through the sweet brown river, kids taking turns to stand tall in the wake and feel the cool of it, the unaccustomed thrill of...

Two Poems

John Burnside, 7 October 2010


The tent show had been and gone and now there was nothing but rust and sunlight, like a poultice on the grass, candy and broken glass and a spare tatter of hallelujah blown through the dust

where somebody passing through had stopped to write a half-dozen half-formed letters we couldn’t decipher out where the trailers had stood at the edge of the night

and the May Queen was...

Three Poems

John Burnside, 25 March 2010


Edinburgh Turnhouse, November 2009


There’s something of the sky in everything

or so it seems tonight, lights swimming up from hill-farms in the Pentlands, close to snow

between the dairy-yards and presbyteries that straggle out, in spokes of white and gold

to stars and clouds beneath the eye of heaven;


and always it’s there, that soft attentiveness,

not looking down,...

Who Chose Them? A Memoir

John Burnside, 10 September 2009

In the summer of 1980, I was admitted to Fulbourn mental hospital, a leafy and surprisingly pleasant institution three or four miles outside Cambridge. I don’t remember very much about the week or so that led up to this point, but I was told later that I had been hallucinating for several days, and I still recall images and fragments from what may well have been a meaningful though...

Two Poems

John Burnside, 6 August 2009

On the Fairytale Ending

Begin with the fend-for-yourself of all the loves you learned about in story books;

fish-scale and fox-print graven on the hand forever

  and a tiny hook-and-eye unfastened in the sweetmeat of a heart you thought would never grieve or come undone.

May; and already it’s autumn: broken gold and crimson in the medieval

beechwoods, where our shadows come...

Two Poems

John Burnside, 4 December 2008

St Hubert and the Deer

He has come to a halt in the woods: snow on the path                and everything gone to ground in its silken lair;

gone to ground              or folded in a death so quiet, he can almost taste the fade of hair and vein,


Losing Helen: A Memoir

John Burnside, 24 April 2008

Back in the 1970s, when my mother was still alive, she got me a job at the fruit and nut processing factory where she worked. It was a good job, clean and fairly light compared to the steel mill where I’d been employed the previous summer and, like all food-related work, it had its perks. My favourite nuts were almonds, which I would send through the fryer in illicit batches, mostly for...

Poem: ‘An Essay Concerning Light’

John Burnside, 20 March 2008

O nobly-born, listen. Now thou art experiencing the Radiance of the Clear Light of Pure Reality. Recognise it. O nobly-born, thy present intellect, in real nature void, not formed into anything as regards characteristics or colour, naturally void, is the very Reality, the All-Good.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead, tr. W.Y. Evans-Wentz

I Scotlandwell

All summer long, I waited for the night to...

Two Poems

John Burnside, 1 December 2005


The heaven of childhood had something to do with citrus: back in the coal towns, deep in a season of rain, or out on the farm roads, away from the dangerous world, where children came down from their attics, with sleep in their mouths,

light on the kitchen walls on a Christmas morning and, under the tree, in their scarlet and matt-black wrappers, the newborn clementines that flaked and...

Poem: ‘Old Man, Swimming’

John Burnside, 4 August 2005

When I was twenty years old, on days that were darker and brighter than now, I got up at six and swam fifty lengths every morning,

steady and even, though not as precise, or as sure as the one other swimmer I passed, flowing back and forth, in the lit pool on Parker’s Piece:

an old man, I thought at the time, with a gold to his skin that is only acquired over decades, his slicked hair


– something that comes from the dark (not self or non-self)

but something between the two like the shimmering line where one form defines another yet fails to end;

look for the proof in snow or the bleed of light between the shorefront and the harbour wall

this late December evening: nothing there; but listen, and it sounds like wings arriving quietly over the firth

and further out the...

Poem: ‘Homage to Greta Garbo’

John Burnside, 2 September 2004

I have a dream I wake from, now and then, mostly in summer, the swallows etching my walls with shadow, eider drowsing on the firth, the gold light in the street trees thick with gnats:

surprised, as I slip from my bed, to see my neighbours’ cars, their bedroom windows curtained, someone moving on the street – a paper boy, the milkman on his rounds –

when, only a moment...

Poem: ‘Shapeshifters’

John Burnside, 1 April 2004

Stepping outside in the dark, if only to fetch the coal, this December night,

I stop in a river of wind on the cellar steps

and think of men, no different from me, transforming themselves at will

to animals – misshapen lives suspended in the blood

slithering loose and loping away through the snow

half-flesh, half-dream;

or, coming in, I turn to face the cold

with nothing in my veins but...

Poem: ‘Haar’

John Burnside, 8 January 2004

Matthew 19-22

This is as good as it gets: this cold fog over the water, this pale companion to the dreams I can’t forget and never quite recall.

Stale afternoon. My neighbour stands in her yard and watches the sky: her children are gone; her husband is lost at sea; how she remembers them now is by looking out patterns

for Arran sweaters, mittens, balaclavas. Her landlord, a lickspittle...

Two Poems

John Burnside, 11 September 2003

Annunciation with zero point field

Sitting up late in the dark I think you’re about to tell me that story I’ve heard before

of a creature pulled from the ice, or prised from a ditch, its body a hundred years old, but the eyes intact and hardly a trace of decay

on the frost-white skin; and later, how they cut along the spine and found two spurs of cartilage above

the shoulder...

Poem: ‘Pentecost’

John Burnside, 19 June 2003

For Lucas

Morning; the usual walk to the harbour: the tide half-out the fat mud fretted with bird-prints light slurred with oil and slicked reflections ice white or coffee brown strawberry red or a blue that never arrives at daylight.

We are here so you can name the world you know one object at a time: fishing boat, lighthouse, herring gull, open sky, those shoals of fish that skirt the...

Poem: ‘De Anima’

John Burnside, 6 March 2003

My son is learning insects – woodlouse bee a line of ants a lone fritillary. He finds them on a flagstone or a leaf and quizzes them the start of dialogue and so

commencement of the soul’s unfolding self-invention in a world that shifts and turns but really has no end

and surely what we mean by soul is something no anatomist could find: a total sum of movement and exchange how...

Poem: ‘By Kautokeino’

John Burnside, 17 October 2002

I walk in a shower of ice on the Finnmarksvidda: freezing rain, not snow; hard pearls of ice, stinging my face and hands as I make my way to the frozen lake. No sign of life – just scats and moulted hair; but something calls from far across the water, some elemental, lost beneath the sky, darker than flesh and blood when it calls again then waits, as if it wanted me to answer

and snow...

Poem: ‘The Last Man to Speak Ubykh’

John Burnside, 22 August 2002

The linguist Ole Stig Andersen was keen to seek out the remaining traces of a West Caucasian language called Ubykh. Having heard that there was one remaining speaker he set out to find the man and arrived in his village on 8 October 1992. The man had died a few hours earlier.

At times, in those last few months, he would think of a word and he had to remember the tree, or the species of frog,


for Will Maclean

I House

If the house in a dream is how I imagine myself:

room after room of furniture no one could use;

stairs leading upwards to nothing; an empty hall

filling with snow where a door has been left ajar;

then whatever I make of the one room high in the roof

where something alive and frantic is hopelessly trapped,

whatever I make of the sweetness it leaves behind

on waking,...

Poem: ‘The Inner Ear’

John Burnside, 13 December 2001

It never switches off; even asleep we listen in to gravity itself.

Crossing a field is one long exercise in equilibrium – a player’s grace –

though what we mean by that has more to do

with music than the physics we imagine.

A history of forest and the murk of oceans, nice

adjustments in the memory of bone

lead us to this: the gaze; the upright form.

Lemur and tree-shrew linger...

Two Poems

John Burnside, 20 September 2001

Learning to Talk

This is our game for now, rehearsing words to make the world seem permanent, and ours; before it disappears, I will have named all we can see, from here to the snow on Kvannfjellet, the yarrow in the grass, a passing swan, eider and black-backed gull at the rim of the sound.

I gloss uncertainties – this lime green weed that fetches up a yard above the tide; those seabirds...

Poem: ‘Koi’

John Burnside, 5 April 2001

The trick is to create a world from nothing

– not the sound a blackbird makes in drifted leaves;

not dogwood or the unexpected scent of jasmine by the west gate

not the clouds reflected in these puddles all around the bowling-green deserted after rain and darker than an early Polaroid –

but nothing which is present in the flesh as ripeness is: a lifelong urgency.

The trick is in...

Poem: ‘Roads’

John Burnside, 9 December 1999

But oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go.


I Driving to Mirtiotissa

We learned to avoid the village to drive through the olive groves...

Lustmord: Fred and Rosemary West

John Burnside, 10 December 1998

Although it sets out to explore the lives of Fred and Rosemary West – along with Peter Sutcliffe, the most notorious figures in recent British criminal history – Happy like Murderers reads more like a novel than a documentary. In this respect, it recalls Truman Capote’s ‘novel of fact’, In Cold Blood, which made compelling fiction out of the brutal and senseless murder of an apparently typical American family in rural Kansas, and created a new genre on the way. ‘Brutal’ and ‘senseless’ are, of course, the terms customarily used to describe such crimes, part of the mechanism by which a society distances itself from the horror it discovers in its midst; the most common epithets for the perpetrators are ‘monster’ and ‘madman’.’‘

Two Poems

John Burnside, 29 October 1998


Carolus Linnaeus (1707-78)

Weeks out of school: in rainstorms and grandmothers’ cupboards, bear-dark in the corners, filigrees of lacewing and silt;

the birds we saw in books: merganser, stork; trees from botanic gardens printed on air; the words in our minds like games that would never be finished: names for moments at sea; or how a skin

is altered by a history of shade: the...

Poem: ‘Fields’

John Burnside, 16 July 1998

From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.

Edvard Munch

I Landfill

In ways the dead are laid                           or how they come to lie I recognise myself...

Poem: ‘Settlements’

John Burnside, 16 April 1998

God answers our prayers by refusing them.


I A Place by the Sea

Because what we think of as home is a hazard to others, our shorelines edged with rocks and shallow sandbanks                reefs where navigation fails

we mark the harbour out with lights and noise: flickers of green and scarlet in the dark...

Poem: ‘Ports’

John Burnside, 21 August 1997

Pas de port. Ports inconnus.

Henri Michaux

I Haven

Our dwelling place:                     the light above the firth;

shipping forecasts; gossip; theorems;

         the choice of a single word, to describe the gun-metal grey of the sky, as the...

Poem: ‘Heimwhe’

John Burnside, 20 February 1997

Remembering the story of a man who left the village one bright afternoon, wandering out in his shirt-sleeves and never returning, I walk in this blur of heat to the harbour wall, and sit with my hands in my pockets, gazing back at painted houses, shopfronts, narrow roofs, people about their business, neighbours, tourists, the gaunt men loading boats with lobster creels, women in hats and...

Two Poems

John Burnside, 23 January 1997


As dawn moves in from the firth I’m sitting up awake, a mug of tea fogging the window, the bones of my hands and face shot with insomnia’s delicate, lukewarm needles. You’re still asleep. Your hair is the colour of whey and your hand on the pillow is clenched, like a baby’s fist on a figment of heat, or whatever you’ve clutched in a dream, and I...

Poem: ‘Shiochie’s Hill, Dunkeld’

John Burnside, 31 October 1996

I want to begin again, climbing through beech roots and gulls to the hill of the fairies,

to nest with the rooks, to sleep amongst broken yews, to crouch in the dark of the ice house, close to the stone;

I’ll come after dark and feel the wet drift of their bodies, they’ll share me with the foxes and the deer,

or borrow my human warmth to weave a caul for the child they have stolen


Six Poems

John Burnside, 4 April 1996


When we’re apart I imagine us in Japan, two hundred years ago, behind a screen, or watching the snow from the yawn of a paper room, the lovers in some shunga by Harunobu. It’s that formality we sometimes need to feed desire: intimate, yet giving in to light and shadow, allowing the other space to be intact and seen, like the single pine in a yard of gravel, revealed by the...

What He Could Bear: A Brutal Childhood

Hilary Mantel, 9 March 2006

The lie is told to a man he meets on the road; it is America, fall, the mid-1990s, when he stops to pick up a hitch-hiker in Upper New York State. It is almost the day of the dead, and he is tired,...

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War against the Grown-Ups

John Redmond, 21 August 1997

A recent newspaper story told of a young man who went to hospital, seeking attention for stomach pains. Expecting to find some sort of cyst, the doctors opened him up. What they removed instead...

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Uncertainties of the Poet

Nicolas Tredell, 25 June 1992

‘Fin de siècle’: the term suggests a dilution and dispersal of the cultural, social and political energies of a century, an uneasy time of uncertainties as a new era waits to be...

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Imagining the Suburbs

Stan Smith, 9 January 1992

Whole systems of thought have been founded on the French language’s inability to distinguish differing from deferring. Perhaps Napoleon is to blame (‘Not tonight, Josephine’)....

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