a girl in a blue dress, Rachel Burns

Vane Women Press, 2019     £6.00 + £2.00 postage  

Not bitter, but wise

Rachel Burns’ poetry seems transparently autobiographical. It’s the way she refers to her own name in the first poem ‘Rachel and the Seven Wonders of the World’ and then again in ‘Catholic Girl Ghazal’, where her friends say, ‘Rachel, give it up, you’re too young.’

A girl grows up in Lowry country, and learns the gritty cost of love, marriage and children, not necessarily in that order. Mix in Catholic guilt and significant images that Burns is unafraid to repeat — wild garlic; pheasants; white sky — and the poetry sticks with you.

The speaker moves in and out of different phases of life, but I’m never lost. I like the childhood section as well as the adult poems about soup and arthritis and looking back at grandparents. 

I like the experimental poems that don’t slot into a category. In ‘The Owls Gather to Watch’, the punchy couplets build an unforgettable picture: ‘The owls gather to watch / with unblinking eyes.’ Then I look again at the unblinking eyes of the girl on the cover. It’s no coincidence that ‘Sean’, a detailed prose poem about a mother and a child, is on the page directly across from the owls. The reader has more than one secret to fathom out.

And there are horses next to each other in ‘Horses’ and ‘The Memory’, where the first poem is a hard-working list of actions and the second is an echo:

Across the river a horse whinnies, reminding her
of the brutish hero in Jane Eyre, of that holiday

We know we are in for something important.

Rachel Burns’ work is wise and not bitter. We poets give away parts of ourselves all the time, and that’s the truth. It’s how we do it that counts.

Candyce Lange