Apostasy, John Burnside
Dare-Gale Press, 2022 £7.00
Catching the spirit
There are many beautiful moments in this pamphlet: elusive glimpses of light or shade that uncannily lift my spirits. Why is it that certain images sing out?
The collection seems a celebration of what goes on just out of sight, in a gap left by doctrines more concrete. The group starts with ‘I A Footnote to Colossians’. This poem closes:
boy I sometimes saw
the one they said
It’s this quality of ghostliness that haunts the work. There are many moments where these poems pay attention to the quiet: ‘the gaunt deer on the roads’ in ‘III Midnight Mass’; or ‘a sea-wind blowing in / from street to street’ in ‘IV Verses for a Sampler’; and ‘Blossom in the ruins’, as that poem ends.
There are religious overtones — the sequence seems set against the backdrop of a Christian upbringing. ‘Apostasy’ means the abandonment of a religious creed or faith. And there’s a real sense of space: I like, for instance, the delicately distancing use of ‘cousin’ in this fragment, from ‘V Out-take from The Gospel of Narcissus’:
like the snow that fell all day
in the space between the trees.
Another shadow, cousin to the one
This writing reminds me how my own flashes of joy so often occur in subtle and elusive in-between spaces: where ‘shadows pass, gigantic on the sand’, in ‘XIII A Note on the Sethian Heresy’. I’m drawn by this glimpse — in the final stanza of the final, title poem, ‘XIV Apostasy’ — to ‘sunlight dusting the pines / by the harbour wall’.
So, what will I take with me from this sequence? I think a sense that’s anyway already alive for me, and captured perhaps in three lines from ‘VII The Heresy of the Free Spirit’. It’s there even in that half rhyme of ‘glide’ and ‘yard’, which itself brings me precisely the kind of peace and satisfaction that I mean:
No God to speak of, there, beyond the glide
of something at the far end of the yard
that never came to pass