Book: The Asylum Dance

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The Asylum Dance

Author: John Burnside
Publisher: Jonathan Cape

Lucid, tender, and strangely troubling, the poems in this collection are hymns to the tension between the sanctuary of home and the lure of escape. This is Burnside territory: a domestic world threaded through with myth and longing, beyond which lies a no man’s land—the ‘somewhere in between’ of dusk or dawn, of mists or sudden light.


The poet and novelist John Burnside opens his seventh collection of verse The Asylum Dance with epigrams from Heidegger and Marianne Moore: Heidegger’s meditation on the nature of “dwelling” being answered by Moore’s absolute faith in the truth of art. At the outset, then, a dialogue between philosophy and poetry is located as the lodestar of Burnside’s work, an insistent and careful scrutiny of familiar, taken-for-granted ideas pursued through the contingently truthful medium of the poem, all of which exemplifies a desire to find “The angel bound / and stilled / in Euclid or Fibonacci.” His skilfully modulated verbal art thus balances the tension between abstract speculation and sensuous, closely observed detail: “When we think of home / we come to this / the handful of birds and plants we know by name / rain on the fishmonger’s window.”

Burnside’s themes are ones that are common to us all—the sure sanctuary of home, the human in relation to the natural world, the tensions between the domestic, familiar world and the strange invitations of travel and immersion in unfamiliar surroundings and the spaces we find or create for love and the imagination. The opening long poem “Ports” starts with the words “Our dwelling place”-and Burnside returns again and again to the idea of home and dwelling throughout this book, widening out the circle of his meditations on what these might mean to us. If the poet’s “body is wired / to the flavours / of childhood,” he nonetheless realises that “what we think of as home / is a hazard to others.” But even our securities are tentative: a shift of perspective and home becomes “a different country,” our bodies “half-inhabited”-behind the safety of the known environment lies the possibility of other ways of being and perceiving.

It is this acceptance of the contradictory impulses of the “known world” and “the pull of the withheld / the foreign joy” that animates and drives Burnside’s work, and which is expressed through a flexible open verse form perfectly adapted both to the registering of image and to fleeting turns of thought. What results is a poetry that is striking in its immediate pleasures and which stays long in the memory: something we can indeed “use to make a dwelling in the world.” —Burhan Tufail

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