Will Burns in Wendover Woods, Buckinghamshire; photograph by Antonio Olmos
Jake Morris-Campbell, April 2021
May 2020, the seventh week of lockdown measures. It’s about 9.30 in the morning and I’m pushing out of the village with the bairn, up beneath the hills, along a gravely track parallel to the disused reservoir (replete with a 100-foot, Italianate cooling tower, whose outbuildings have since been retrofitted into some of the most ‘des-res’ dwellings in NE34) and on along The Lonnen, past thickening cow parsley, into Cleadon Park. Here we’ll sit, in the almost-silence, and work out what these diminished days might now hold. Or, rather, I will – the bairn being eleven months old and rightly more concerned with the stash of raisins and oaty bites beneath his buggy, it’s up to his dad to puzzle over ‘The Situation’.
If my introduction has done something to ape the stylings of the poet Will Burns, then my intention is deliberate, my effect hopefully forgivable. It was at this point last year that I had promised Wild Court a review of Will’s debut collection of poetry, Country Music. Amid the jostling for desk time that my wife and I had had to negotiate during those extraordinary weeks, childcare and all other contact suddenly and saddeningly severed, it became painfully clear that I would not, after all, be able to comment on Will’s book. I apologised, citing the circumstances, and Country Music sat, as we all now seemed to, waiting.
Then, on those Fridays when lockdown walks meant looking forward to indulging in a takeaway and a few cold cans, I returned home from the park, the bairn having dozed off in his buggy, to sit in the yard, midday cuppa in hand, and doom-scroll Twitter, as was my wont. Through the serendipity of the platform, I discovered an article by Will Burns: ‘Where Do We Live Now?’ posted by The Social. Moved in the early evening of that second or third Friday of the month – a ridge of high pressure firmly ensconced above – to stroll out and collect some tapas from one of the few nearby establishments within walking distance still selling off-door, I noted how, even though I’d only read a few thousand words of his offerings, something about Burns’s new series had quite profoundly altered me. Party to first-hand accounts of drifting through these surreal days between the Chiltern Hills and the pub his parents ran, something of not only the timbre of his poetic-prose, but – I daresay – the spirit of his thinking, entered me, 270 miles away. As I walked down Front Street in the suburban village between the large post-industrial town I was born in and the medium-sized post-industrial city that typifies this part of the world, and passed the now-shut Italian restaurant, and watched the teenagers drop mountain bikes to pile into One Stop for Soleros, and noted the drastically lessened (and frankly lovely) amount of taxis which ordinarily would be whizzing early evening drinkers to the Bigg Market or Quayside, I thought of Will, and hoped that there’d be more to come from the Paper Lantern.
How to get from anecdote to insight; observation to analysis? ‘Country’, the opening poem in Country Music, does so by playing with stereotype. If the ‘music’ of the collection’s title is as much a nod to poetic sound-making as it is to de-railing our expectations of men in high-waisted denim strumming old banjos, then we can identify immediately a Burnsian motif: the trick of applying a many-angled vantage to defamiliarise the staid and ordinary. Here, the ‘nether country,/Buck’s country/and thieves’ country’ is seen to be ‘sold off in car boot/fields, piece by piece.’ It is a surprising image, certainly, and one that will recur in my discussion: this notion of things eroding piecemeal, of people trying to make sense of fragments, of the meanings printed onto monikers and the trouble their legacies can cause.
Another Burnsian signature ploy is a juxtaposition of the hyper local and the global: a weighing-up, measuring-out and arguing-over which finds perfect recipe (if you’ll indulge the metaphor mixing) in poems such as ‘Drive South Listening to Country Music’, an ode to the poet’s brother which would have our narrator
[…] wishing it was a whole continent we had to travel into, with drives that last whole days to get to the water, and big game fish and names like sockeye and wahoo to learn
Which neatly brings us to another trait that I noticed reading Will Burns: the author’s forensic eye for naming things. And not just out of duty to uncover hidden etymologies as praise-poems for forgotten vernaculars, nor for being linguistically stubborn or philosophically pure. No, Burns is certainly no onomast, but it is fair to say that his poetry is suffused in this preoccupation with naming and all the categories and defiances and slippages that process entails. As any amateur etymologist/professional poet \ professional etymologist/amateur poet knows, however, it is in the slippages that the most interesting narratives begin to form, and at his core, Will Burns is a storyteller.
Take ‘The Word for Wood’ – yes, it operates as above, at once aware of its infidelity to the cause (naming) and abundantly happy in its own attempts to placate. The poem’s true strength, though, doesn’t lie in deactivating ‘Simple words/[…] charged themselves against me’, but in using those simple words as stage sets. What begins as a fairly rudimentary narrative (man riddled with anxiety, absorbed in his bookishness, notices jackdaws, and in noticing, can’t help but comment) quickly takes on a much larger presence. The oblique ending of this poem – ‘Your dogs have wandered off the path – /followed their innate memories of the pack/into the wood. The howls are maddening’ – might bring to mind for one reader Ovidian tales of transformation; for another reader, the dramatic premise of the tale-as-told might not be out of place as a sort of Middlemarch-esque nineteenth-century novel of manners. As ‘February’ has it:
[…] there is also the matter of the people. How many there are... do we know? Can we trust the data?
And so we have arrived, via the poet’s skilful deployment of the particular, at a place from which we can see through, or around, the abstract. Cumbersome and unhelpful terms like ‘trust’ are central preoccupations in Country Music, as they are in Will’s next book, which we will come to shortly. Arguments could be made until proverbial fields of farmed animals returned to their barns over whether poetry or prose is the more appropriate vehicle to broach them. For Burns, I don’t think it matters. It certainly didn’t trouble me. This, perhaps, is the unique privilege of reading a writer as versatile as Will Burns in this way: you get to figure out how closely his poetry sits to his prose while only ever being dumbfounded at guessing how tangential poems like ‘Biography’ might be to the actual lived experiences of a person and their family. As soon as I finished it I uttered that slow, quiet, mantra, known to all critics to be adjusted into sensitive, melodious, expansive praise in the edit, but which, when laid out so barely and beautifully, and encountered on its maiden read, can only engender (and only once, truly) an awe-filled exhale: ‘Fu-ck-en-He-ll’. Here’s that moving, closing quartet:
The council flat and dog-piss stained kitchen linoleum, summers of maggots and the bins they’d overrun, Somebody else’s life spun on – his life, in short. You just played the part of son.
Let me elaborate: the poem is a genealogy – a three-tier male one, specifically, which unfurls into commentary on class, hobbies (cricket, birding), the welfare state, colonialism, and more. It is, I admit, the sort of poem, as a man in his early thirties drawn to other poets writing in the patrilineal tradition, that I can’t get enough of. And while it might have been wrought in the shadow of Seamus Heaney or Derek Mahon (‘the workshop at the bottom of the garden’), this is a poem that feels to me, above and beyond its notional concern with complex (and trendy) concepts such as fragile masculinity (and their attendant bedfellows, e.g. ‘Awkward military school impressions’), to ultimately privilege mutability and uncertainty: ‘Those first, earliest impressions –/to whom do they belong?’ It is, therefore, an apposite place from which, begrudgingly, to take leave of Country Music, and enter the saloon bar of The Paper Lantern, for there’s another drink being measured (‘a two and a half second pour’), and the bartender really isn’t certain whether ‘the whole vale was a mistake, a smudge below the hill line, a false memory, a fantasy, a lie.’ (p.96)
Let’s get this out of the way now. This book must contain lies. Or distortions. The Paper Lantern begins topographically and taxonomically: ‘The place with which we are concerned was a small market town which, for some reason that nobody could ever adequately explain to me, insisted upon being called a village.’ (p.1) When I later read, in a 2019 TLS article by Declan Ryan, that his fellow Faber New Poet, Burns, having moved back with his wife from London three years prior (so, in 2016), ‘to experience the village in a more direct way’ , still resides in Wendover, and has written so, well, frankly about it (and, frankly, he has written very well about it), I couldn’t help but speculate. How much, I wondered, might be considered conjecture – gossip, even – and, perhaps as a sister thought, how much of my querying that is to do with the marketing that has gone into this work? Its recent inclusion, for instance, in The Observer New Review’s ten new novelists feature might suggest a work of literary fiction, but I’m not sure at all this is what we are dealing with. All of which sounds nit-picky and cynical, I get it, but after recent furores surrounding auto-fiction, one does have to be sensitive to these issues, tiresome a diversion as they are.
Whatever genre it ends up being filed in is fine with me. The Paper Lantern is a startling, lucid, timely book. It’s also deeply funny – and not always in that off-hand, blackly humorous sort of way. Sure, a self-aware style does tend to dominate, particularly in the closing third, and the author is critical of his own foibles, but throughout jokes, wry observations and witty points are directed outward. All told, it makes for an absorbing read: you feel that Burns has earned the right to make these jibes, a right that is borne out of a deep affection for the locale and its idiosyncrasies. Certainly if there is gossip it comes from being behind the wickets of a chatty bar-room, which is to say that The Paper Lantern is partially possessed of a docu-drama feel that might beget its seriousness, for this is, without doubt, also a solemn book, one whose worrying at the state-of-the-nation positions it somewhere between polemic and confession. This is how Burns has created what has, for me, become the standout narrative of the Covid-19 crisis: by pushing his own, personal, locally circumscribed musings on the pandemic through the wider gauze of social stratification, the rich-poor gulf, and the escalating planetary crises, he has ensured that The Paper Lantern resonates widely.
But what’s it about, I hear you asking? It’s always reductive for a reviewer to blurb the narrative arc, so here’s a summative offering. It’s about walking. It’s about lockdown. It’s about pubs and the unusual fraternity they encourage. It’s about loss. It’s about memory. It’s about people moving on, or not being able to move on, or thinking they’ve moved on when they haven’t. So it’s also about: ambivalence, pride, butterflies, canals, the Chiltern Hills, rodents, wildflowers, brutish motor cars, HS2, cricket. I think it’s a book of wondering, drifting, and thinking. It’s a making-manifest the all-too-intangible (because-too-beautiful, because-too-nebulous) that all writers have experienced at one time or another. It’s about Buckinghamshire, the Home Counties and their attendant link to London and the M25. It’s not (but sort of is) about the magnetic pull of the capital. You could say it’s about capital: financial, cultural, spiritual. It’s about the dearth of real wealth and the counter to that: slowly deepening into place, feeling its contours map onto your own, joining the grooves in your skin. It’s about the commuter belt and manicured lawns, all the blokes named Pete in Oxford shirts and Ray-Bans, spinning their Porsche keys conspicuously at the bar. It’s about the gentlemen like the author’s grandfather, offering allotment tips, tips on life, dwelling and time. It’s about good advice and ill-advised choices. It is, of course, about Brexit: the holes its seduction promised to fill for so many whose lives were already diminished, perhaps by some of the above, or their lack. It’s about work: its sorrows, joys and endless banalities. It’s about ownership, property, rights of way. It’s about rites of passage and rituals folded into dusty old books left at the back of pub libraries. It’s about pints of bitter, curtain twitching, the rumour mill. It’s about crosswords in broadsheet newspapers, folklore and protest. It’s about tacit ways in which lives play out behind high walls and hedges, and the psycho-dramas that encircle and at times spill out from small towns incapable of processing their own anomie. It is, in short, a book about Britain at a terminus: a distilling of those now seemingly-radical thoughts we had all harboured, and for a brief hiatus felt vindicated in voicing, this time last year, when we could stroll and chat and dream about other ways of spending our time, as this vehement passage has it:
The lockdown had opened up the possibility of a different way of being – working from home, even working less, travelling less, consuming less petrol and plastic and all manner of other stuff. We had all better return to the drudgery of the old orthodoxies, then, in order to keep the whole sorry mess afloat and to quickly forget any nonsensical ideas we’d started to have about how we might alternatively spend our days on earth. (p.141)
At times Burns is too critical of his own complicity – or, rather, over anxious about his figuring in it. When he writes ‘But what did I do about any of this, anyway? Wrote my own shabbiness into mediocre poems and stood in silence behind the bar while the old men raged, incoherent, at the changes they perceived’ (pp 141-142) it’s an understandable position to take. I’ve wrangled with similar doubts myself (regarding my own writing) but The Paper Lantern most definitely is a commendable act. In drawing these lateral connections, and, yes, in framing his own limitations, Burns has energetically – defiantly – embraced the zeitgeist of this past year. I don’t mean the clapping for carers or the sticking-up of rainbows in windows (worthy as they, too, are), but rather, in harnessing the reverberations of those actions that we, stupidly, in the UK thought would never come home to roost. ‘The hammer should always fall elsewhere, as it always had’ (p.77) says the narrator, noting how the deepening crisis inflicted by the virus – with ‘its uncanny ability of being both everywhere and nowhere’ (p.5) – mirrored popular opposition towards HS2, a government construction project whose gouging of old hillsides and deforesting of ancient woodlands is held to critical scrutiny here, albeit without the sorts of easy-prey judgement calls or simple-solution proposals you might expect from a lesser polemic. No, Burns isn’t here to admonish; this is thought that has, evidently, been sharpened by local, national and international politics and economics, but Burns’s role is not arbiter. He might be better described as a shaman: called to staying in, and relaying, deep-time hallucinating, to see what residues of that betweenness might usefully be carried forward.
Recalling memories of his childhood friend Stephen and his enigmatic mother, a passage recounts that: ‘She said that looking properly, looking with attention, with care, at the world was a way of absorbing it into yourself, taking on its largesse, its fullness.’ (p.84) It’s a moving work of philosophical instruction, expertly countenanced by her follow-up call: ‘put the bloody books away and go outside.’ You sense that this is precisely what Burns has done. An earlier passage, from which I’ve quoted for the title of this piece, outline Burns’s decision to take on the responsibilities of an allotment, but might well be read as his broader mantra: ‘The whole thing seemed congruent with the styling of myself as the local poet, as namer of the birds and trees, as man of the region’. (p.30)
Of course, the difficulty of being aware of this sort of epithet lies in its very artifice. Burns knows this. ‘Did nothing come naturally to me?’ he writes; ‘Was everything the result of wrangling and chastisement? Of knowledge and the denial of knowledge?’ It feels, then, that The Paper Lantern is ultimately a sort of open diary: a Dictaphone recording as the poet walks and muses, and self-critiques, and muses some more. In this regard it is probably an extended placeholder text – one whose formal restraints mirror the gradual opening-up of society post-lockdown – and you feel that there will follow an important deluge: new poems, hopefully many more, and further works of creative and critical prose. But what a placeholder it is: one which justifies its position, standalone and proud, as Bellwether for these weird days we’ve all been corralled into.
With fellow travellers Edward Abbey and Tim Lilburn, The Paper Lantern is also a hymn to how writers formulate themselves: the way they carry small libraries of allies, and in their notebooks and sketchings make atlases of understanding. The rangy nature of the prose herein, melding eulogy with rhapsody, lament with joviality, makes for a laconic, unusual and I reckon utterly essential read. As I said above, I expect, and hope, that Burns’s second collection of poetry will soon follow, and that more exploratory blends of nature writing, psychogeography and mood-testing litmus papers will be written. And the next – indeed first – time I find myself able to travel down to Wendover, I hope it’ll be Will pulling my pint of ale. As long as he doesn’t call me Pete.