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Burnside’s The Fair Chase

Maya C. Poppa introduced me to Burnside.

I found a copy of his famous poem, here.

Black Cat Bone by John Burnside, published by Graywolf Press.

Its quite wonderful this poem.

Burnside works his way around the riddle, in a wandering awakening, does so visually, skirts religion, allegory, mythic too, adamantly prone to finding beauty where expression of it still lays all around, tethered to aplomb, and its tenderness, as well as time and its many tomb…

So much softer than mine — all cut up and caught up, in jungle bungle tug and tow, lingering over disquiet riot of absurd terrors —

The Fair Chase

                        De torrente in via bibet;
                        propterea exaltabit caput

                                       Psalm 109
What we were after there, in the horn and vellum
shadows of the wood behind our house,
I never knew.
At times, it felt like bliss, at times
a run of musk and terror, gone to ground
in broken wisps of ceresin and chrism,
but now and then, the beast was almost there,
glimpsed through the trees,
or lifting its head from a stream
to make us out:
a coarseness on the wind
and brittle voices sifted from the morning.
We tracked the scent through barley fields and hollows,
we followed it into the spinney
with billhooks and sickles,
but nothing was ever there, save the codling moon
and, far in the meadows,
the one field of nothing but grasses
where something had lain,
in a fetor of blood-warmth and pollen,
before it moved on.
Still, we continued;
when one man sickened and died,
another would take his place in the wandering column,
blacksmiths and lawyers, orchardmen,
butchers in waiting,
lost in the fog, or hallowing after the pack,
and all of them friends of my father’s; though, needless to say,
in a country like this, the dead have more friends
than the living.
We were the men you saw
on a winter’s morning:
cumbersome bodies, shrouded in gunsmoke and cyan,
we went out every day, in every season,
falconers, rat catchers, deerstalkers, whippers-in,
plucking at shadows, purblind, afraid of our dogs,
and if, on occasion, I never quite saw the point,
I was always the first to arrive, with my father’s gun,
bound to the old ways, lost in a hand-me-down greatcoat
and last among equals - flycatcher, dreamer, dolt,
companion to no one,
alone in a havoc of signs.
One year, the reservoir froze.
I walked out to the centre of the ice
and gazed down through a maze of gills and weed
to where a god I’d read about in books
- sweeter than pine, but stone-hard in his tomb -
lay waiting for a gaze to curse with knowledge.
The ice was clear as glass: I hunkered in
and dared him, from that unreflecting world,
to pull me through, in one bright flash of rage,
no crack, no sudden drop into the cold,
nothing to witness,
nothing to remember.
Minutes I waited; then the others came
and called me back, the dogs a swarm of noise
and worry, old men’s
faces in a mist of their own breath
ashamed for my father’s sake
and his father before him.
We carried on; I walked off to one side,
and halfway through the white of afternoon,
I slipped away, unwanted, or unnoticed,
taking a road less-travelled through fields and yards
of stunted brassicas and rotting tyres,
strangers in coveralls or leather aprons
stopping to watch as I passed: no hand raised in greeting,
no dog come out
to see me on my way.
That was a foreign country: snowdrifts, then sand,
blotted and kissed with yew-drupes
and windfall holly,
spotted owls hunting for beetles along the hedge,
smoke in the distance, nether roads,
passing bells.
I walked for hours, yet it was light as noon
when I came to a place I thought I had seen before
through a lull in the weather:
nothing to speak of,
a dirt track and sheep in the woods,
and that sense of a burial, under the moss and ruin,
but something was present a few steps into the treeline,
one of those creatures you find in a children’s album,
a phantom thing, betrayed by smoke or rain,
or glimpsed through a gap in the fog, not quite discerned,
not quite discernible: a mouth, then eyes,
then nothing.
It lingered a while;
and then, as if it wanted me to play,
it shifted away through the trees - and I followed after.
Crashing through cover, ducking through sumac and maple
it leapt and ran, though never so fast or so far
that I couldn’t keep pace
and when I paused for breath, it also paused
and stayed,
as if it wanted me to follow.
I never saw it clear, but it was there:
sometimes the brown of a roe-deer, sometimes
silver, like a flight of ptarmigan,
it shifted and flickered away
in the year’s last light
and I came after, with my heavy gun,
trudging for miles
through meadows laced with rime,
working by scent
and instinct, finally
true to myself,
with the body and mind of a hunter
and, by the time I stepped into a glade
candy-striped with light and frosted grass,
I knew exactly what a man should do
in my position - lucky, singled out
by death and beauty for the blessed kill,
assenting to the creature’s dumb assent
to blood and darkness
and the life
I took a bullet,
loaded it with care
and aimed with an intent that felt like love
- though I only knew love
by hearsay
and stubborn lack.
No sound, no movement; all the world was still
and not a creature in it
but ourselves,
me taking aim
and the animal stopped in its tracks,
waiting to see what would happen, unafraid,
a deer, I thought, and then I saw a fox,
and thinking I knew what it was
I pulled the trigger.
The old days were better for mourning;
better for tongue-tacked women
in ruined plaid
climbing a hillside
to gather the rainwashed bones
of what they had lost, that winter, to the cold,
and men in the prime of their lives,
with dwindled sight,
dreaming all night of that slow white out by the river
where, once or twice a year,
a girl would drown,
pledging her heart to a boy she had mostly imagined.
I remembered the flow country, then,
as the gunsmoke darkened:
I’d go there as a child on Sabbath days,
my father asleep in his church clothes, a fret of chickens
wandering back and forth
at the kitchen door,
a lull in the house and that emptiness high in the roof
as if someone had flitted away
in a summer wind.
I’d go out in my Sunday clothes and shoes
to the shimmer and dart
of sticklebacks threading the light
and search for something I could never name,
the blue of a smile, or the curious
pleasure of the doomed, as they go under;
and that was what I hurried out to see,
crossing the space
to where the beast went down
but all I could find when I got there, standing dismayed
in the stopped air of afternoon, with smoke on my lips
and my heart like a fettered thrush in the well of my throat,
all I could find was an inkwash of blear in the grass
like the fogged stain after a thaw,
and a ribbon of musk
 threading away to the trees
and the distance beyond:
no body, no warmth, no aftermath, nothing to prize,
and the night coming down all at once,
like a weight at my shoulders,
settling in waves, till all I could see was my hands.
Everyone becomes
the thing he kills
- or so the children whisper, when they crush
a beetle or a cranefly in the dust,
feeling the snuff of it bleed
through the grain of their fingers;
I’d always thought of that
as superstition:
a wishful thinking, how the spirit moves
from one shape to the next
like breath,
or warmth,
infinite kinship, laid down in the blood
against the sway
of accident and weather;
yet out in the woods that night, as I dug myself in
to wait for the day, I felt it in my gut,
a gravity I’d never known before
dragging me down
so it seemed I would cleave to the earth,
the life I had taken
snug as a second skin.
I should have died, if not for that faint warmth
that held me there, unseeing, in a night
so utter, dawn
was like a miracle:
the trees emerging, piecemeal, from the cold,
a snowflake here, then there, then everything
arriving all at once, as I awoke
and, never having slept, began to walk.
I didn’t know how far I was from home,
but nothing looked familiar
- not the woods
and not the road I found that afternoon,
dizzy from cold and hunger, hurrying on
through empty yards and desolate plantation,
nothing alive
as far as the eye could see,
only the white of the sky, like a wondering gaze
pursuing me from one field to the next,
from ditch to ditch,
from wall to broken wall.
I walked like that for days. The road led on
through spruce and lodgepole pine, then dipped away
to where a village lay, warmed in a crook
of hills that seemed familiar, suddenly:
a spill of lights and woodsmoke and a kirk
that made me think of something in a book
before I made it out. My dead were there
among the tilted stones;
I knew the market cross; I knew the spire;
but everything was strange, even the house
I came to at the far end of the lane
that passed the abattoir then crossed the brook
and finished at the unclipped cypress hedge
where no one lived next door,
through there were ghosts,
so frail, I only knew them by the sound
the wind made
when it worried at the shutters.
Nobody lives
here now, it’s only
crows and bees
and every shift
and slant
is an event
in its void
of mud and wire.
Yet now and again
I have turned
in a falling shadow
and caught a glimpse
of something
at my back,
not heard, or seen, 
but felt,
the way some distant
shiver in the barley registers,
before I can think to say
it was never there.
The hunters pass at daybreak, casting
curious looks at my door, but no one is here
to see, as they enter the mist
and disappear.
Nobody lives here now, not even me, 
and yet the house is mine - a net of dreams
and phantoms
and that living animal
I followed through the woods: locked in my bones
and calling for the life it must have had
far in the green of the pines, and the white of the snow,
where I am hunting, hunting even now,
hearing that cry
and turning my head,
for an echo.

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