Declan Ryan reviews Will Burns’ debut full-length collection, our Book of the Month for April.
Although the timing of their publication is hardly ideal, Will Burns’ poems are – mercifully – perfectly equipped for a period of shut-down, reflection and reckoning-up. There is a penitence and early-hours melancholy that rings out of Country Music, not quite nostalgia – the idea of home is more complicated than that overloaded word – closer to the saudade of ‘My Grandmother Arrives In The Home Counties’: holier, truer, more musical. The mood is one of shabbiness, of the morning after, but the poems manage to recreate the songs of the night that’s passed, to reconstruct it through sculpted talk and stabbing detail, “steel strung and sung in high harmony”. Taken together in this way you get a whole world, populated and troubled and always on the verge of erosion. It’s a place of “untidy homeliness” set out in clear lines, clean, low register statements built on speech but tilting, subtly, into memory and revelation – undemonstrative but hard-won, built to last. There is something in all this of what James Salter once called “the true life”: placed against Burns’ poems so much else feels suddenly over-written, phoney, full of designs and big, hollow gestures.
These are personal poems, built on the “veracity of recollection”. There’s a winning degree of, often misplaced, hero worship here, beauty worship, pleasure worship – whether for ‘Cycnus in Soho’ and his “bit of Rupert Brooke/and more yet of the Californian anti-hero” or other lost idols and friends, Townes Van Zandt, (“Still dead, I assume?”), Chet Baker, Jason Molina. The latter is the subject of ‘The World’s First Ghost’, at once an elegy and a biography, ending with the sort of sharp left turn Burns proves himself capable of throughout, a lurch into luminosity, the poetic equivalent of the Cruyff turn: “The land of the nothing for free -/certainly not medication, not security./O Grace!, he sang.” Like the best country, this is all built on heartbreak – again, not of a one-note variety, but sorrow at the loss of time, of places and friends, of youth. “By god they could talk about the past,/as if it were a waste of time to be there when we were”, ‘Fish Market in Normandy’ opens, and that gesture – at once self-aware, self-mocking but rooted in regret at having arrived a little too late echoes across this book’s many canyons, plaintively.
There are so many phrases that sing out as perfect, detachable summations of a moment or a day, but their poignance never overloads the poems that house them. This is thanks to Burns’s skill at pitching a voice at once implicated but subtly detached, gratefully despondent, singing low, hungover canticles. It’s a book of second chances and second lives – whether the country singer playing for dinner and drinks in Paris or Chet Baker’s “classic second act”, and the speaker of most of these poems is on a second one himself, at least a second, having lost the golden lustre of the “days of vodka-7s in the shower”, his “tick-list become wishful”. He isn’t grumbling though, content instead with what’s been saved, with beer as strong as wine, or to stand “in the doorway, waiting for you to dress”; “and of course there was a ‘you’/who was all I could think about.” So many different sorts of love poem – to a place, to a time and to the woman who has made it all cohere, ultimately, even when “We’re up late/with one of your coughing fits.” The book ends on ‘Heavy Weather’, a spare but haunting distillation of all that’s gone before – the world on the brink, “no borders to heavy weather/wherever you were” – and “No work anymore, no tasks.” There’s hope there too, among the noise, the rain and the rubber boats, enough to cling to and by now you’ve come to trust Burns to tell you it straight, either way. There aren’t many people you can say that about.
Country Music is out now, published by Offord Road Books. You can read a poem from the collection, and listen to a playlist made by Will to accompany it, here.
Country Music is available here in our shop, priced £10. Our shop platform, state51, is still accepting orders, but is working with a skeleton staff, and so orders may be delayed. We are most appreciative of your understanding and custom in this uncertain time. Alternatively, you can purchase a copy through the Offord Road Books shop.