Ian Burgham, whose last collection appeared in 2012, has chosen an ideal title for his fifth book of poetry. Throughout its forty-five-poem length, this hard-hitting travelogue of the spirit addresses three mainstays of existence: we’re essentially alone, death is inevitable and relationships often break down. He opens with a poem of spousal betrayal set in Scotland and asks “what do we hunger for most— / truth or illusion?” Then we move on to “Istanbul” where, despite the exotic splendour of the place, “the heart’s attachments / can be dismantled.”
Yet couples are not the only ones who come in for pitiless assessment here. In “Iron,” a portrait of Manchester, we tour its “warrens of blackened brick” and “abandoned railway lines.” Our surprise comes at the poem’s end, when the speaker catches a glimpse of “belief held fist-tight / all the way out to the housing estates.” In “San Francisco,” however, that thimble’s-worth of cheer is harder to locate. Where, he wonders, are the Beat Generation’s upholders? If all the subversive artists have departed, where is an aging poet to look? Burgham finds a partial answer in his portrait of four fishermen in “Agios Nikolaos, Crete.” Beyond the “tobacco breath and incisions / in the black stone of weathered faces” there’s this gem at the end of stanza three: “They carry no hope for justice. / They’ve worked up an appetite for death.” These lines destroy any assumptions we might be nurturing about happily pensioned-off old salts in a bankrupted Greece.
In concert with this piece, there are four very good shorter poems: “Connemara, Ireland,” “Hard Covers” Iona Scotland, “Eurydice” Leadburn, Scotland, and “The hour” Capri, Italy. The first two of this group expertly portray the drift in a relationship from early passion to tiresome quarrelling. As soon as love’s good, it’s flown. The instant communication is established, it’s ruptured. These observations are reiterated in “The hour” and in several other poems where we get the sense of a man moving past middle age and desperate to grasp something solid. Yet Burgham’s narrator continues to believe in art’s capacity to ennoble deadbeat lives. “Trainspotting,” and “Address and Destination” Paddington Station, London advance the idea that while we are in transit “Country becomes fiction, belonging disguise.” Indeed, who could be living further from a purposeful quotidian than Burgham’s trainspotters, “who simply breathe, watch, take numbers, / breathe, wait.”
This poet excels at seeing beyond the surface appearance of urban settings, people, and relationships. He also employs caustic humour to strong effect. However, I would have liked to see fewer sweeping assertions such as “Words don’t make meaning. / They are mediations. (…) It’s words that are to blame.” from “Trainspotting,” or moments verging on the prosaic such as this excerpt from “Iron:” “But look under halos of orange-yellow streetlights / misshapen by shadows of legs and arms of traffic near a canal / behind ‘The Briton’s Protection Pub’ on Great Bridge Water Street / and you’ll discover its voice.” Are these lines extending a rhythmic invitation? Maybe I’m just tone-deaf. Burgham has proven that he can sculpt a stronger, leaner scene in his standout portrait poem, “Agios, Nikolaos, Crete.” I look forward to seeing more of those honed moments.
Peter Richardson’s most recent book is Bit Parts for Fools. He lives in Gatineau.
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