Poem: The Listener



John Burnside’s poems evoke the other world—whatever it might be. The poems are at once lyrical and meditative, their seemingly ordinary declarations cross-stitched with spookiness; the result is a kind of vivid, autumnal intensity. We liked this poem for the way it steadily drew us into a world of its own making, the slightly surreal clarity of its stains and stars. —Meghan O’Rourke


Luke 11: 6

It’s nightfall again on our hill.
Headlamps and spots of gold
in the middle distance;
sculleries; pig sheds; a bedroom above a yard
where someone is lulling an only child
to sleep.
I’ve been on this road since morning,
the land gone from green through grey
to a soft, damp bronze
around me till, a mile or so from home,
I come to the usual
gloaming: an almost white
against the almost black
of gorse and may.
Summer now: an older mode of sleep;
and this, the running dream that follows stone
and fence wire, digging in
for what remains of snow-melt and the last
good rain, the low road
peopled with bone-white figures: not
the living, in this aftermath of grass,
and not the dead we mourn, in empty kirks
or quiet kitchens, halfway through the day,
but something like the absence of ourselves
from our own lives,
some other luck
that would not lead
to now.
Along the coast, it’s still
from field to field,
the living asleep or awake
in the quick of their beds,
hard-wired with love
and salt-sweet from the darkness,
the long-dead blanking the roads
and everything
disloyal to the earth
it came from, streaks and nubs
of grief pooled in the dark
and stitched with strictest
pleasure at the core: that cunning
relish for the irremediable.
There’s nothing so final as want
on a summer’s night,
and few things so tender or sure
as a knock at the door
and nobody starting awake
in the knit and tear
of buried rooms, where mice breed
in their millions, spilling loose
through ruptured drains
and root-bins, nightlong squeals
that run beneath the stillness, like the stains
of manganese and nickel in a wall
where ancient conversations turn to hair
and plaster: uncles
calling from the sway
of grammar
and a cousin twice-removed
reciting what she knows of saints and stars
for no one but herself,
resigned to live
forever, on the promises she kept
and paid for,
in a cradle
of thin air.

John Burnside is a professor in creative writing at St Andrews University. His most recent poetry collection is The Hunt in the Forest.