Circling for Gods, Jo Burns

Eyewear Publishing, 2018  £6.00


Jo Burns loves language, and languages. In her poems she sprinkles words from many sources. English, of course, is the main medium, but there are words and/or phrases from German, Spanish, Latin, Italian, Afrikaans, Hebrew (if you count ‘amen’), Sanskrit – sometimes I wasn’t even sure where the words came from, only that it was a heady mixture. In the lovely poem ‘Bees’, she remembers how, in childhood, ‘exotic words’ were ‘erotic to my small country ears’.

So it’s not surprising that the word ‘babble’ also appeals to her, the onomatopoeic jumble of sound more than sense. In ‘Conception’, ‘La doctora babbles Spanglish’; in ‘Untranslatables’ a return ‘to babble’ leads to a reference to ‘our personal Babel’; in ‘Green Milk’, she leaves behind ‘the babble / and sky of lowlands’ to climb right up, almost above language and into ‘reverence’.

It made me wonder. Babble/Babel – is there a connection? No, as it transpires. Wikipedia reminds me that the Tower of Babel isn’t even called  ‘Babel’ in the Bible (no pun intended). The place where God mixed up all the languages of the world to prevent men getting above themselves is only referred to as ‘the city and the tower’. The city acquires the name ‘Babel’ from the Hebrew ‘balal’, meaning to jumble or confuse. ‘Babel’ has apparently no etymological connection with babbling babies and brooks, even though aurally and semantically it’s close. 

But babble is exactly what the poet is not doing in this pamphlet. Her mixture of languages is precise and careful. Even in ‘Bees’, where she refers to the way her ‘great-uncle Evan’ deterioriated mentally and died, the loss of clarity is sweet: his mind has become ‘honey’. There is more meaning than we know, she suggests, in the mystery of language: 

                                                            His one true love, the dictionary,
abandoned him later to become my companion. When he died

alone, his mind had long turned to honey. Lain out, dandy-suited
for the wake, swarms of mourning words gathered from all corners

to hum over his sweetening brain. Two still, quiet bees on the coffin lid
listened (so the story goes) to the very skill of them.

Helena Nelson