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Radio forecast: Sanskrit rain

10 August 2012

Martyn Halsall takes a look at secular prayer, poetic metaphysics

The Bees
Carol Ann Duffy
Picador £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50 (Use code CT374 - free postage on UK online orders during August)

Black Cat Bone
John Burnside
Jonathan Cape £10
Church Times Bookshop £9 (Use code CT374 - free postage on UK online orders during August)

CAROL ANN DUFFY's first poetry collection as Poet Laureate is billed as her '"closest affirmation yet of her belief in the poem as 'secular prayer'". This disruptive definition sits in creative tension with poems by John Burnside, whose Catholic and Celtic influences brew their own incantations.

Duffy's definition can be traced back to her poem "Prayer", which completed her 1993 collection Mean Time. This recasts in secular form George Herbert's 17th-century sonnet of the same name. While Herbert's "meditative catalogue of conceits" (in Jack Dalglish's definition) ends with resolution, defining prayer as "something understood", Duffy concludes with "the radio's prayer" of the Shipping Forecast.

Echoes from that earlier poem resound into Duffy's new collection as the ecological stewardship of the bees is threaded through new poems like rosary beads. In places they become synonymous: "broken holy beads" as "the beads were the bees themselves . . ." ("Telling the Bees").

So The Bees becomes a post-modern prayer book through its appropriation of cross-cultural forms, like the 23 haiku celebrating whisky ("Drams"), or the personified elms of an earlier England: "great, masterpiece trees who were overwhelmed" ("The English Elms").

Duffy works widely, adopting words overheard from the Romantics or Wilfred Owen and recasting them through her experiences of love and bereavement, political protest, and the English and Scottish landscape traditions.

Her images shine, like "the bronze buzz of a bee", and her language ranges from the elegiac to the mischievous. Even if her concept of "secular prayer" proves elusive, religious terminology appears still to intrigue her.

Bees are celebrated as "concelebrants" in "Hive", where the "Latin murmurs" continue the "Latin chanting" from "Prayer", and that poem's "grade one piano scales" reappear within "Music". It seems that her "affirmation" is not so much defined as continuing.

While Duffy often appears to view the natural world from the distance -"a driver sees a white horse printing its fresh old form on turf like a poem" ("The White Horses) - John Burnside is grounded there.

He portrays a world of shadows; twilight territory that encompasses lingering paganism and Celtic reverence. His 12th collection takes its title from "a powerful hoodoo talisman, conferring success, invisibility and sexual power on its owner". Ancient understandings, emanating particularly from surrounding forests, enclose and infuse many of his poems.

The epic, ten-page poem "The Fair Chase" heralds and summarises his collection. It tracks, with a reference to Psalm 109, a hunt for a "beast", sensed rather than identified. An odyssey ends with a single shot, yet "all I could find was an inkwash of blear in the grass like a fogged stain after a thaw. . . no body, no warmth, no aftermath, nothing to prize. . ."

This murder of emptiness (perhaps God, or a god?) conditions the rest of the writer's life in a deserted community reminiscent of Gray's elegised village, or Scottish victims of the "clearances".

Burnside writes with a persistent sense of the "holy" or the "other", sometimes adopting biblical text, and yet also through its translation. Matthew 22.14, about many being called but few chosen, becomes a meditation on how the spirituality of landscape might prove more telling than institutionalised religion.

Sometimes he appears to pause, as in "Faith", to draw together preoccupations of search and belief, the fragility of relationships, and the interplay of time and distance. Here, he brings his novelist's eye to a misty plot about abstractions, and brings his poet's ear for vocabulary and cadence to its representation:

he had left her one morning at


for the Sanskrit of rain.

Go far enough they say,

and some hideous god

will meet you like a shadow on

    the road;

go further still, and scripture

    closes in.

In "The Listener", Burnside takes Luke 11.16 ("because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him") to explore that sense of returning home as a stranger, to a community belonging as much to the dead as to the survivors. The poem unfolds like a spell, softly spoken and yet poignant in the search and grief that hallmarks so much of this collection.

Burnside stands among our most profound metaphysical poets, and we are unlikely to read anything more accurately mapping the cost and diligence of spiritual search until he next reports from his continuing pilgrimage.

Dr Halsall is poetry editor of Third Way magazine.

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