History

John Burnside

It is only the subtitle, and particularly its date, which identifies the context and genesis of Burnside’s poem. It was on 11 September 2001 that terrorists flew hijacked airliners into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York and another into the Pentagon building. The repercussions of this even were, and still are, felt across the world. A sense of uncertainly caused by this momentous event, particularly about the future, inhabits the poem, though it is never explicitly articulated. The closest Burnside gets is ‘I am dizzy with the fear/ of losing everything’ with ‘the news in my mind’.

That uncertainty is partly communicated by the spatial drifting of the lines about the page – interestingly absent in Burnside’s first published version of History. They create a tentative reading for meaning as dislocated words and phrases are connected. The setting is St Andrews on the north east coast of Scotland, close to Leuchars which was at the time an RAF base. The ‘gasoline smell’ and the ‘war planes’ which ‘cambered and turned’ over the coast are another reminder of what became known as 9/11.

The focus on the event is highlighted by the paradoxical move from the title, History, to the first line, ‘Today’, repeated at the beginning of the second section. With the ‘news’ fresh and a feeling of ‘muffled dread’, the speaker concentrates on innocent activities on the beach with his son. There is a suggestion of reverence for the innocence of youth in ‘I knelt down in the sand/ with Lucas’ and he moves from mental awareness of destruction to a focus on life and play with ‘shells’, ‘pebbles’ and ‘driftwork’. There are, though, even here, suggestions of violent death, with ‘shreds of razorfish’ and ‘smudges of… flesh’.

Burnside picks up the kite image from the beginning of the poem to consider mortality further, the speaker pondering ‘what makes us who we are’. The airborne kites of thoughts and dreams are tethered to reality by the practical and the ordinary, but also the transitory and the beautiful, whether shifting ‘silt and tides/ the rose or petrol blue/ of jellyfish and sea anemone’ or, crucially, the tender vulnerability of ‘a child’s/first nakedness.’

The second half of the poem celebrates the ordinary, from ‘forests’ to ‘sticklebacks’, all of which now seem even more vulnerable this September morning – there is the danger ‘of losing everything’. The vulnerability is emphasised by the long single sentence, with its isolated phrases spaced across the lines; it is a delicate web of meaning on the page. The consciousness of mortality and ephemerality highlights different aspects of the ‘cherished world’ and asks how one can, unlike the terrorists, ‘do no harm’.

The poem resolves on those core connections, with the kite image again, between the ‘toddler’ and ‘his parents’, the bonds of life and love, in a blend of optimism and pessimism, as the parents are ‘patient; afraid’ and, as parents, are always ‘attentive’ to their children, even though ultimately they cannot save them, they are ‘irredeemable’. But even in that last word there is ambiguity of meaning – either the children cannot be saved (redeemed) or they cannot be in some way cashed in (redeemed in a metaphoric monetary sense) to save their parents. One way or the other, the links between parent and child will be broken and futures are fragile.