Oct 16 2023
Poetry review – CROWS AT DUSK: Thomas Ovans enjoys a reflective walk through the seasons in the company of James Roderick Burns
Since using your soap I have never considered using another. I am reminded of the old joke advert which features a grubby individual writing this testimonial for Pear’s Soap because I don’t think I have read a book-sized volume of haiku since I reviewed and enjoyed The Worksongs of the Worms, a previous collection by James Roderick Burns. In that review I laid down some guidelines for myself on how best to read these delicately crafted invitations to contemplation, each sitting in its own field of white space. In brief, my self-directed advice is to remain still. Neither snatch too quickly at a first interpretation nor give up too soon if a meaning doesn’t instantly suggest itself. The new Burns collection Crows at Dusk gives me a chance to see how well they stand up – the guidelines that is.
This chunky but pocket-sized collection is divided into seasonal sections. There are five of them in fact since Autumn gets a reprise in the final pages. The poems don’t seem to be strongly themed according to the time of year but neither is there anything that feels out of place. Autumn includes a mention of fireworks (but not Halloween even though it has supplanted Guy Fawkes Day in popular imagination) and an interesting glimpse of how mossy cobbles look in fine rain. Winter begins with good news for reluctant gardeners
Last cut – even the hedge sighs with relief.
Spring lets us watch as ‘a lilac bush / begins to quiver’ in anticipation of an insect’s arrival.’ And Summer gives a chance to celebrate the appearance of ‘overnight poppies / in a dead yard.’
Across all the sections Burns offers some delightful and insightful moments of connection and recognition. For instance:
Between bus and puddle, a dry patch – three hen’s teeth at once
for which there is a pleasing companion piece later in the book ‘Full pothole / on a dry road – / splash!’ Elsewhere Burns imaginatively likens traffic on a flyover to gnats in fog – a novel comparison I would never have thought of – and suggests one can tell how far one has walked away from a town by noting that vegetation is ‘almost soot free’. A fairly innocuous summer scene
Sun warmed rat war-memorial plinth all to himself
is suddenly layered with greater significance when we recall the rodents that infested the wet and stinking trenches of World War 1.
As might be expected from the book’s title, birds (and other animals) figure quite frequently. Crows ‘joust for a cigarette end’; magpies ‘probe the corners’ of an enclosed garden; snow geese emit ‘wild, inky honks’. Apart from crows and magpies, dogs seem to be the most frequent cast members. Many of us have probably smiled at on seeing
Ball and stick jostling for space in the dog’s mouth.
And if we have ever kept a dog as a pet we will know about trying to remove ‘a pair of snagged leaves’ from its coat and may recognize ‘the smell of night’ as a euphemism for something rather more distasteful that has been joyfully rolled in!
People on the other hand are largely absent from the poems and in the most densely populated vignette it is again the dog that seems to be the focus of attention
Model train – I watch passers-by watch the watching dog
Reviewing a book of haiku presents a particular difficulty when it comes to quotation. I have sometimes been able to use short phrases to illustrate Burns’ dexterity with words; but all too often when sharing a quote I have ended up giving the whole game away – which is something that would almost never happen in a review of a book of longer poems. It could be that I have failed to take my own advice and chosen to “give away the plot” of those haiku which most readily presented me with a handle to grasp them by. In that case it should follow that discerning readers will find lots more in these hundred or so enjoyable pages which will repay a spell of pleasant contemplation.