Michael Jarvie reviews One of These Dead Places by Jane Burn
Jane Burn has forged her characteristic poetical voice in what can only be described as the most difficult of circumstances. In fact, it is all voice, an expressive working-class woman’s voice, at times roused to anger by the injustices of the world, at other times loving and enraptured. To use Martin Heidegger’s terminology, she illustrates our ‘geworfenheit’, in other words the way in which we are thrown into existence, and her life experiences clearly demonstrate how she has embarked on a journey of self-realisation from her original state of ‘uneigentlichkeit’ to one of ‘eigentlichkeit’ (i.e. from an inauthentic to an authentic mode of being.)
The present collection is published by Culture Matters, a left-wing co-operative based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. We must be grateful that they exist since it is unlikely that such radical work would otherwise be brought to our attention by the largely conservative and bourgeois-dominated mainstream publishing industry.
Thematically, the collection revolves around childhood, work, motherhood, mental health, political consciousness and the natural world. To enhance the reader’s experience, the poetry is accompanied by the author’s magnificent pen and watercolour illustrations.
The war instigated and ruthlessly prosecuted by Margaret Thatcher and the Tories against working-class communities, especially the wilful and sustained destruction of the mining industry in the South Yorkshire coalfields is vividly portrayed in these poems. Deindustrialisation with its ‘smithereened windows and skin of muck’ is the focal point, since everything else follows from that policy: escalating crime rates, increased drug dependency, the breakdown of formerly tightly-knit communities, a reliance on foodbanks, a spike in mental health problems and the rise of insecure minimum wage jobs in the service sector.
What of the poetry, then? How does it address these issues? First of all, let us begin with childhood. This was overwhelmingly a period of inauthenticity. As Jane Burn says in her Foreword, ‘I didn’t eat a courgette until I was twenty. I didn’t know that anyone could be an archaeologist.’ And she certainly never expected to be a poet.
The poems of childhood are particularly poignant and memorable. There is ‘Potato Pickers’ with its ‘cold, umber mud unveiling its slumbering fruit’ and in ‘The Man Who Sold Mice’ the author reveals how she was unable to resist these creatures, priced at 50p each, when, ‘They pressed their sweet pink paws against the clear divide’ of the aquarium. Given the unsentimental nature of this poetry, one of the mice meets a grisly end, as does the fairground goldfish in its plastic bag and the horse in ‘Livestock, Deadstock’:
The blank-faced man in wipe-clean pants
Palms the pistol, slots in a round, snaps it shut.
Her politically charged poems vary in terms of how successful they are. At best, they articulate a rage at the way in which inequality and hatred of the ‘other’ have been allowed to flourish under the guise of ‘caring Conservatism’. Perhaps one of the best poems in this vein is ‘You Kipper’. This work presents a narrative in miniature, with a beautifully handled turning point near the end. The poem begins:
This old man at the till,
All dodder and fluff.
The customer is presented sympathetically – he is courteous and friendly – and the author wishes she could ‘snoodle’ him. But then we are presented with this awful revelation:
the weathered fold of his fossil wallet,
scrabbles his eolith fingers within.
I see it. It comes out with his bus pass,
his twenty pound note.
His membership card for the Kippers…
Jane Burn is particularly adept at capturing the essence of a character, whether it is the aforementioned Kipper or this meticulously observed figure from ‘Working for Mr Bone’:
I never once saw him smiling. Dealer boots
And thin ginger hair, wisping his dome like funfair floss –
Fat belly, bow legs. He was a sight. Cruel mouth.
In ‘no light of their own’ we are told how, in the past, babies were actually born in the depths of the pit. The poem concludes:
They must have blinked
As they broke the surface,
Blood mixed with soot.
The day must have seemed
So bright. A bliss of rays.
These lines remind me of one of Pozzo’s speeches in Waiting For Godot where that character proclaims, ‘They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more’.
All I can hope to achieve in a review of this length is to scratch the surface, given the variety of work on offer. Particular standout works are: ‘Livestock, Deadstock’ and ‘this is not a poem about birds’. I should also mention the wonderful ‘found poem’ entitled ‘who do you sponge off?’ which is a patchwork of quotations attributed to His Royal Highness Prince Philip.
There are inevitably a handful of typos (‘whithers’ instead of ‘withers’ for the ridge between the shoulderblades of a horse and ‘Barnsely’ instead of ‘Barnsley’ in ‘The Community Charge How Will It Work For You?) but these are minor issues. (Oops, sorry about that - Ed.)
I would therefore urge you in the strongest possible terms to purchase a copy of One of These Dead Places. You will not be disappointed.
One of These Dead Places is available here.