a search for something I could never name
the blue of a smile, or the curious
pleasure of the doomed as they go under...
Lost childhoods, things 'glimpsed / but never really seen' ('Loved and Lost'), sinister worlds 'known since girlhood', presences that can only be guarded by being buried all stalk the pages of Burnside's new book. The world is expressed as its own negative. As Burnside says in 'Creaturely', 'the only gift is knowing we belong to nothing.' The metaphors Burnside uses to evoke this ‘other-world’ in his poetry are shadowy themselves, their vehicles vague, or sometimes even impossibilities, as in ‘Hearsay’:
At the back of my mind there is always
the freight-line that no longer runs
in a powder of snow
In a sense, Burnside’s are negative metaphors, relations between things that are often beyond our conception. In a 1970 study of Proust, Kamber and Macksey define negative metaphors as those in which an initially posited sensation moves towards an imaginary one; not rooting sensations in the known world, but moving beyond it. In Burnside’s metaphors, sometimes both tenor and vehicle are elusive or imaginary.
phenomenon of synaesthesia. Recent work by V.S. Ramachandran has brought synaesthesia, the "perceptual experience by which stimuli presented through one modality will spontaneously evoke sensations in an unrelated modality" into the spotlight. Previously regarded as an epiphenomenon or even an illusion, synaesthesia has now been established as a neural condition with a genetic component, believed to affect between 2-4% of the population. Synaesthesia, Ramachandran believes, is the result of 'cross-activations' between different areas of the brain (most commonly, number and colour V4 areas, which are adjacent) as a result of defective neural pruning, leaving the synesthete with an excess of neural connections. Most intriguingly, Ramachandran proposes that synaesthesia - otherwise a trait of limited utility - remains in populations because of its relationship to metaphor. Unsurprisingly, synaesthesia is more common amongst artists and the cross-activations it involves are conducive to creative thought.
John Kinsella, who withdrew from this year's T.S. Eliot prize is a synesthete and has written about some of his sensory experiences. Regardless of whether individual writers may benefit from the cross-activations of synaesthesia, I'd argue that a number of interesting poetic images try to emulate (and therefore stimulate) the synaesthetic process in the reader. 'Black Cat Bone' is a deeply synaesthetic collection. Burnside is fond of strange sensory pairings and his latest collection is teeming with them: 'musk and terror', 'blood-warmth and pollen', 'gunsmoke and cyan', 'blood and narrative', 'hymns / and ghost towns' the 'moss and curvature / of nightfall', or the 'tinnitus of longing'. Burnside's ghost-couplings often pair unlikely sensory qualities and surprise us with how right these seem. There's an easy profundity about some of these pairs at times, a sense of mystery-achieved-too-easily, perhaps, which isn't as present in his earlier collections.
Sometimes, these sensory transmutations are strikingly vivid. In 'Transfiguration' the final description of 'blood exchanged for fire' and 'thoughts for stone' shocks us with a near-physical force. It's strange, then, that what these images finally leave us with is a tantalising sense of 'something like the absence of ourselves / from our own lives' ('The Listener'). Their imprecision often gives them a paradoxical resonance.
As Ramachandran argues, we are all synaesthetes on a very basic level (language itself being a kind of synaesthesia). More than that, I'd say poetry readers long for the kind of rich, sensory experiences that some synaesthetes report. Luckily, we can approximate them or invent our own through the strange, absorbing imaginative experiences poetry affords us. But don't take my word for it. To experience the strange alchemy of 'Black Cat Bone' for yourself, you can hear John Burnside reading some of the poems from it here.