Caught by the River

Five Poems by Will Burns

Will Burns | 8th March 2016

unnamed Five Poems by Will Burns is the fourth in the Clutag Five Poems Series, published by the poet Andrew McNeillie (co-founder of firm Caught by the River favourite Archipelago magazine.) Available here. Anna Wood reviews.

This short collection – five poems, handstitched together and printed in an edition of 100 – contains acute images (“pinned/like shrike-prey to a hook”), rumbling-round-your-mouth phrases (“these stannic days a pinnacle/of sorts”), one or two bits that I may well steal for my own use (like a kid from the countryside who wants to be “flagstone-cool”), and a seeping sense of hungover melancholy and misty nostalgia.

Burns’ previous work was often clear-eyed and sturdy, tightly paced and thewy (to use a word I found in one of those earlier poems). He’s written of the gristle and muscle of geese, the “grinding of metal rods into swarf”. Manly! Those poems had grief, uncertainty, questions about belonging, lots of nature, lots of birds, and all from a distinct viewpoint – you heard the voice of a young writer living in the home counties, drinking in Soho and (here I’m guessing a bit) dreaming of dusty North American road trips.

In the intimacy of these five new poems, in the soft chat of their tone and structure, that early uncertainty has bloomed. There are more unidentified ‘you’s and ‘we’s, the past is becoming larger and it’s getting more difficult to judge distances. The occasional specifics of time and place (“Twenty miles from the trout farm” in Drive South Listening To Country Music; the title of May 9th; “that last afternoon” in Market Street) are untethered in swampy memory, and their apparently arbitrary occurrence serves to make the poems even more disorienting – like an ageing brain that recalls the name of a long-dead pet but has forgotten what month we’re in right now.

Perhaps that tussle between specifics and murkiness comes from another apparent contradiction that runs through the poems – the warm nostalgia for times that do not, at first look, seem to deserve such fond recollection. The lines here pine for journeys to places that turned out to be rather disappointing, songs heard on the car stereo that our hero never actually liked. The ambivalence is everywhere. In May 9th:

“There is a common good
here after last night
though it has been too hard won.”

In Drive South:

“I’m wishing it was a whole
continent we had to travel into…
But happy enough too
with our worn hills”

And, almost brilliantly, in Market Street, right at the end of the collection:

“A shared awkwardness then,
and now a memory of
how I wished, but not quite prayed, that almost everything
about us could be unlike it was.”

Maybe this ambivalence is what fuels these five poems: maybe it is what the words and sounds and phrases are hanging from. Ambivalence is to have opposing feelings rather than just mixed or uncertain feelings; it can be a flag, a pointer towards the things that matter to us even though we’re not sure why they matter. Look at the quiet battles underway in those last lines: “I wished, but not quite prayed, that almost everything/about us could be unlike it was.”

“All genuinely creative writings are the product of more than a single impulse in the poet’s mind,” said Freud. “And they are open to more than a single interpretation.” And of course we wouldn’t need poetry at all if we could simply interpret it all into some neat analysis (although it can be fun to try). So maybe we’ll just listen to these five uncertainly felt but certainly excellent poems, the sounds and the rhythms and the ideas, and see what they pull out of our own ambivalent selves.

Will Burns on Caught by the River