Spurred to read John Burnside by Cape's recently issued Selected Poems, I made his poem Septuagesima my Poem of the Week this week. Below is my reading of Septuagesima.
For those of us who only read fluently in one language the epigraph, in Spanish, at the head of John Burnside's poem Septuagesima, is the second hurdle we face after the title of the work itself. Septuagesima is the name given to the third from last Sunday before Lent in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. Known among the Greeks as Sunday of the Prodigal, the title is taken from the Gospel of Luke's famous The Parable of the Prodigal Son, (chapter 15, verses 11-32), which customarily is read on the day. Understanding this, we are immediately tuned to the fact that this may well be a religious poem or a poem where knowing some of the religious connotation or background or resonance of the title is probably of some importance. A poet is not going to choose such a title, and append such an epigraph, carelessly.
Jorge Guillén y Álvarez (1893–1984) was born in Valladolid in Spain and was a member of the so-called Generation of '27 poets. The quote in the epigraph is from Guillén's poem Dawn. In English translation it would read something like: "Names. / Above, below they cover the essence / of things." These words set the theme of the coming poem and are echoed both right at the start of Burnside's verse ("the day before Adam came / to name the animals") and towards the end ("before the names, / beyond the gloss of things).
The first tercet of Septuagesima again tells us that God is in the house - "I dream of the silence / the day before Adam came". And the second stanza's "God's bright fingers" fully confirms the hint of the title, whether we know anything about Burnside's faith or not, that this is indeed a religious poem. The poet dreams of the earth's silence before God had made mankind, way before the events of the Fall. Looking out onto "a winter whiteness" he wonders would that time then be in any way like this time now. Is this light, bright silence in any way like the silence "before Adam"? If it is (and the hint is that it is "like this, perhaps"), what does that tell us?
We read that the "gold skins" of the newly created, at the time of their newness, were "still implicit with the light". The poet seems to be suggesting that the creatures of creation were themselves formed out of this (Divine) light and the "gold" brings our attention to how precious that creation is. I find myself reminded of William Blake's God reaching down, out of the clouds, almost pure light. Perhaps, in times of quiet contemplation, we can get "beyond the gloss of things" by seeing in the day's quotidian light the very Divine light from out of which it was separated? "[B]eyond the gloss of things" is the Divine. And it is all around us; a patina on our fellow creatures; an ever-present companion - who, asked TS Eliot, "is the third who walks always beside you?"
Philsophers have long argued about how to discover the thing itself, language being a bridge to the thing described but, finally, a barrier to it: language merely refers. Burnside suggests that we are "sometimes / haunted by ... the forms / we might have known / before the names". Before the corruption of language, just after God first separated the light from the dark, before the animals were named, the forms of things simply were. In their quiddity, their thing-ness still "haunts" us (note the repetition of "haunting" and "haunted"). But why "haunt"? It seems an oddly non-Christian word (ghosts and ghouls haunt, not the Christian God).
We are sometimes "haunted by the space / we fill". As when we enter a huge, cavernous church or, more simply, just a cave. And sometimes haunted "by the forms / we might have known": the people we might have become or loved; the paths not taken. At the very least, "haunt" suggests the supernatural. It brings our attention to the unnaturalness of God, perhaps even to something frightening about Him. But, despite this one word, the tone of the poem is not fearful, nor fearsome. Burnside dreams "of the silence" before Man was made, and before Sin came. Echoes of those days "before the names", before our Creation and so before our separation from God, can be felt in the light shining now, today, any day, which, finally, is our reassurance: light's silence always speaks of God.