One of These Dead Places by Jane Burn

A review of the poetry collection One of These Dead Places by Jane Burn.

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Jane Burn’s writing splurges and billows and overflows. No sooner have you stopped gasping at some outrageous simile, unusual use of language, or other delight, that along comes another line to set your mouth watering. I have laughed aloud at some of these lines, not because of their content, but from their sheer beauty and liveliness. And all the time, she hits every nail on the head, her pacing is bang on, every breath and whimsy counts, it is a sustained virtuoso performance under never-wavering control.

Discovering Jane Burn for me has been akin to discovering Schubert’s piano sonatas. When you hear them for the first time, you think, “Where the hell is he going with that?” Sometimes you get the feeling that he doesn’t know himself, as if the music is leading him by the nose. But then, with the final resolution, you know that he was perfectly alive to what he was doing from beginning to end, and the sheer beauty of his artistry takes your breath away. It’s the same with Jane Burn. She can write a shopping list that contains all the drama and pathos of the world.

She writes about the lives of miners before and after the pits closed in a way that makes you grind your teeth to stumps in shame and horror. When she writes about the death of a horse she opens the floodgates of love and compassion. This can be seen in the poem ‘Livestock, Deadstock,’ in which she writes:

she was made from muscle, flight and timber knees.

Now, all spindle-crack and hobble-twist, pelvis a trident,
age is all depletion.

One of These Dead Places by Jane Burn

I didn’t live a life anything like this, I was privileged, had an education, but I was brought up in Yorkshire too, and what I was quietly noticing all around, which filled me with sadness, she has dignified with a voice, and it speaks to me like a sister who has seen my parallel life with sadness too. Anyone who can see so much and report so precisely about life on a supermarket till in a deprived area gets my vote. It is a beautiful, thoughtful, political book recording the hopelessness and desperation of ordinary lives, lightened by glimpses of joy, of nature, of hope. It is divided into chapters with one of her extraordinary black and white drawings at the beginning of each one. They add a tone of savagery and humour, even whimsy, which perfectly balances the poems. I can’t imagine one without the other.

This is a red rag of a book. Have a dartboard handy to deal with your rage, and several boxes of tissues to mop up the grief. But whatever you do, buy it and read it and tell her how wonderful it is so that she goes on writing. This is a woman whose life suggested she’d be the last person to write poetry. She’s stuck two fingers up to that and written a blinder.

Rosemary McLeish has been writing for the past thirty years, mainly short stories and poetry, as well as articles for journals.

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