Nov 30 2016
Merryn Williams praises a new – but, sadly, posthumous – collection from Elizabeth Burns
Lightkeepers Elizabeth Burne (edited by Gerrie Fellows & Jane Routh) Wayleave Press ISBN 978-1-910437-38-4 £12
This is Elizabeth Burns’ last volume, edited by two friends after her early death; I understand that she had been suffering from cancer for several years. The opening poem looks at her ordeal without self-pity:
The recovery room is where they wheel you afterwards; a kind of limbo – place between earth and heaven where the body lies before ascending – where you drift from sleep to waking. There’s a quiet, end-of-the-day feel, the nurses talking softly. One brings you water, another helps you to your feet and asks you how you like your tea. You put on slowly your own clothes, totter over to the sofa, the table set with magazines, a tin of biscuits. And this seems all you’d ever need: the peaceful room
A great many of these poems are about creating peaceful spaces – listening to Bach in the kitchen, moulding pottery, contemplating the flower paintings of Winifred Nicholson. They are likely to have a special appeal for women, whose experiences, as housewives and mothers, have for so long been considered trivial. Burns treasures ‘commonplace’ objects like a basket of eggs, an old battered dresser, cloths sewn by female ancestors, her grandmother’s copy of Little Women: A Story for Girls. That particular book is valuable not because it is very good but because it affirms the bond between mothers, daughters and sisters, and demonstrates that ‘even girls’ can write. She isn’t an aggressive feminist. But in ‘The hours’ she wishes that Burne-Jones’ soulful women would step off the canvas, cease to be men’s muses and do something, anything interesting.
Looking at an old issue of The Interpreter’s House, where I published some of her poems, I recall how ‘In the butterfly house’, winner of the 2005 Myeloma Awareness competition, celebrates a group of children who are ‘learning the creative life …. waiting for the idea …. for the notes to sound pure, for the colour to be perfect’. ‘Lightkeepers’, the lovely title poem of this collection, affirms that each person has a ‘fiery, unquenchable self’. And Burns thinks it important that each spark of fire should be cherished and that we should look for meaning and value in ordinary lives:
Austerity suited my father, back in the fifties when he was lean and spare, living in the tiny house at the plain address, 1 Back Lane, with a packing case for a table where he pours tea for his friends who live in a caravan and have come round for a bath – He and Mum eat bashed tins of veg from the canning factory. He has no car, he cycles everywhere, and when I am born and it’s a Sunday with no buses, he hitches to the hospital. When my mother brings me home at last, it’s Christmas Eve and because there’s no money for a tree, he’s made one out of plywood with his fretsaw, a cut-out he props up on the wedding-present sideboard. Look how the standard lamp casts its soft glow over the wooden tree, the bowl of fruit and vase of daffodils given in celebration of my birth (fresh grapes and flowers in winter!) Even my father’s eyes if we could see them would be shining, for he is fuelled by love for his new bride, his baby daughter. My father at this moment in his life owns very little, yet if you’d asked him if there was anything he needed, he’d grin and say he lacked for nothing.
This is a collection full of marvellous poems: ‘A revolution’, which points out that you can’t just abolish the past; poems about the Brontes; about paintings (with special reference to women in the Bible stories); about anonymous craftsmen (‘The hare’). But I am especially haunted by one from an earlier collection, ‘The Brightest Star’, about the astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who also died in her fifties and is half-forgotten:
Cancer eclipses her. By the time they think of her for the Nobel, she’s dead.
This was written some years ago, but it’s an uncanny parallel. I am left with the feeling that here is a great poet, who has gone too soon, and whom I didn’t sufficiently value when she was alive.