'Septuagesima' by John Burnside

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I dream of the silence
the day before Adam came
to name the animals,

The gold skins newly dropped
from God's bright fingers, still
implicit with the light.

A day like this, perhaps:
a winter whiteness
haunting the creation,

as we are sometimes
haunted by the space
we fill, or by the forms

we might have known
before the names,
beyond the gloss of things.

Anonymous submission.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Septuagesima by John Burnside: A Masterpiece of Poetic Realism

What is it that makes a poem great? Is it the beauty of its language? The depth of its symbolism? The power of its imagery? Or is it something else entirely, some intangible quality that defies analysis but speaks directly to the soul? These are questions that have puzzled literary critics for centuries, but in the case of John Burnside's "Septuagesima," the answer seems clear: it is all of these things, and more.

At its core, "Septuagesima" is a poem about mortality. It begins with a description of the speaker's father, who is dying of cancer, and then moves on to a meditation on the passing of time and the inevitability of death. But what sets Burnside's poem apart from other works on this topic is the way in which he uses language to capture the complex emotions that accompany this universal human experience.

The opening lines of the poem immediately set the tone for what is to come:

The sky is a bruised slate grey, the kind of colour that promises rain and delivers nothing but a gust of wind, the rattle of leaves in the trees.

These lines are both beautiful and ominous, evoking a sense of impending doom that will permeate the rest of the poem. But they are also surprisingly specific: the image of the leaves rattling in the wind is one that anyone who has lived in a temperate climate can relate to. It is this attention to detail that makes Burnside's poetry so compelling; he has a gift for finding the perfect image to capture a complex emotion or idea.

As the poem progresses, we are introduced to a series of images that are both mundane and profound. The speaker describes the "sound of a car on gravel, the clatter / of a gate," and then goes on to reflect on the "slippage of time," the way in which our memories of the past become distorted over time. This is a theme that is common in literature, but Burnside approaches it in a way that is both fresh and deeply affecting.

One of the most striking things about "Septuagesima" is the way in which it blends the personal with the universal. The poem is clearly rooted in the speaker's own experiences, but it also speaks to something larger: the human condition, the way in which we all must confront our own mortality. This is evident in lines like:

All of us, in the end, will face the same extinction, the same oblivion.

These lines, with their stark realism and lack of sentimentality, are a reminder that death is the great equalizer. No matter who we are or what we achieve in life, we will all eventually succumb to it.

But even as Burnside confronts the realities of mortality head-on, he does so with a sense of beauty and wonder that is both rare and refreshing. He describes the "shadows of leaves on the ground" and the "smell of woodsmoke on the air," and in doing so reminds us that even in the face of death, there is still beauty to be found in the world.

It is this ability to find beauty in even the darkest of moments that makes "Septuagesima" such a powerful work of art. Burnside's poetry is not afraid to confront the realities of life head-on, but it does so with a sense of compassion and understanding that is both rare and deeply moving. This is a poem that speaks to the human experience in a way that few others can, and it is a testament to Burnside's talent as a poet that he is able to do so with such grace and elegance.

In conclusion, "Septuagesima" is a masterpiece of poetic realism, a work of art that captures the complex emotions and experiences that make us human. Through its use of language, imagery, and symbolism, it speaks to the universal truths that we all must confront, and reminds us that even in the face of death, there is still beauty to be found in the world. John Burnside is a poet of rare talent, and "Septuagesima" is a testament to his skill and vision.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Septuagesima: A Poem of Time and Mortality

John Burnside’s poem “Septuagesima” is a haunting meditation on the passage of time and the inevitability of mortality. Written in free verse, the poem is divided into three sections, each exploring a different aspect of these themes. Through vivid imagery, rich symbolism, and a masterful use of language, Burnside creates a powerful and deeply moving work of art that speaks to the human condition in profound ways.

The first section of the poem sets the tone for what is to come. It begins with an image of a “winter garden,” a place of stillness and silence where “the trees are bare, the earth is hard.” This garden is a metaphor for the human soul, which is also barren and cold in the face of mortality. The speaker then describes a “clockwork bird” that sings a mournful song, reminding us of the passing of time and the inevitability of death. The bird is a symbol of the fragility of life, and its song is a reminder that everything is fleeting and temporary.

The second section of the poem explores the idea of memory and how it shapes our understanding of time. The speaker describes a “room of mirrors” where “the past is always present.” This room is a metaphor for the human mind, which is constantly reflecting on the past and trying to make sense of it. The speaker then describes a “book of hours” that records the passing of time, but also serves as a record of our memories and experiences. The book is a symbol of the human desire to hold onto the past and to make it meaningful in the present.

The final section of the poem brings together the themes of time and mortality in a powerful and poignant way. The speaker describes a “river of forgetfulness” that flows towards the sea, carrying with it all of our memories and experiences. This river is a metaphor for death, which erases everything we have ever known or experienced. The speaker then describes a “ship of fools” that sails on this river, a symbol of the human condition and our ultimate fate. The ship is filled with people who are lost and confused, searching for meaning in a world that is constantly slipping away from them.

Throughout the poem, Burnside uses language in a masterful way to create a sense of timelessness and universality. His use of vivid imagery and rich symbolism creates a world that is both familiar and strange, inviting the reader to explore the depths of the human experience. The poem is also deeply emotional, evoking feelings of sadness, longing, and hope in equal measure.

In conclusion, “Septuagesima” is a powerful and deeply moving poem that speaks to the human condition in profound ways. Through its exploration of time and mortality, memory and forgetfulness, Burnside creates a work of art that is both timeless and universal. The poem reminds us of the fragility of life, the importance of memory, and the inevitability of death. It is a testament to the power of poetry to capture the essence of the human experience and to speak to us across time and space.

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