The Business of Colour
I have mixed feelings about ekphrastic poetry: I always want to see the painting as well as the verbal response. But this pamphlet is an exception. It’s a sequence about Anne Redpath, the Scottish painter. I have never read poems with so many colour words in them! The effect is not in the least repetitious: it’s extraordinarily rich and satisfying. Elizabeth Burns focusses less on individual paintings than on the cumulative effect of colour, especially when wielded during the bleak war years.
I was struck by the difficulty of writing about colour, too. Because once you’ve worked through red, yellow, blue, green, yellow, pink etc, you begin to think you’ve exhausted your verbal palette. But Elizabeth Burns’ vocabulary never runs thin, and she gives colour adjectives a context that makes them leap out: ‘a thread of scarlet running through the grey’, ‘red slippers from a fairytale / set on an Indian rug with blue leaves’, the ‘cold, ox-blood floor’ of the kitchen, ‘a lavender sky / stippled with patches of cream’.
I realised there are words that summon colour, where you might not expect it – ‘marigolds’ (gold), ‘bare trees’ (black), ‘grass’ (green) and ‘scarcely more than a blush’ (pink); and there’s ‘what fires her’ (the colour of flame). Lemons in the fruit bowl (no need to say ‘yellow’). I see ‘marble’ in its grey-white translucency and suddenly the glitter of a ‘silver wedding’ is anything but accidental.
Why had I never before noticed the ‘red’ in Redpath? ‘Flashes of Redpath’ are suddenly literal ‘in the reds and pinks of lilies’.
And the colour words feel so good on the tongue, the pleasure in saying and seeing rolled up together: ‘lime-green and lilac and pink’, ‘mouse-grey, soft green’, ‘the gold baroque’.
Eiizabeth Burns died recently, and too soon. Even in her surname, there’s gold.
Helena Nelson, Sphinx
Pots, bowls, jars, jugs: the poems in Clay take vessels as a starting point, celebrating both their physical presence and metaphysical possibilities. Each small, spare poem is itself a vessel, holding empty space for the reader to fill. This is from ‘Potter-midwife’:
Her hands are used to the squelch
of clay, its milky slips
and to the slush of blood and mucus,
breaking waters, birth fluid
in the centre of the bowl
a tiny nub of clay –
That poem is set in Africa. Clay is intimate and domestic but also encompasses the world – China, New Mexico – moving from birth and human origins towards loss and death. It does all this in short, apparently simple, quietly declarative poems. Short lines mostly fit the sense, with little punctuation and rarely a full stop at the end of a poem; we’re left as much space to think as words and bright white page can give. Burns achieves a disembodied clarity from her tangible objects, a feeling that it’s possible to get from walking round Bernard Leach’s studio or looking at an installation by Edmund de Waal. Or from gazing at a single, ancient pot, rare survival of a lost civilisation.
Burns plays with life cycles and potters’ wheels, with the roundness of pots and their nature as containers, like body to soul. She links her material to the fire and ash of the kiln and human mortality, for example in the three lines of ‘His ashes’:
His ashes contained in the clay
that made this funerary jar
Twice he passes through fire
The repeated passing is reflected in rhymes; “contained / clay / made”, “jar / passes”, “jar / fire”, “this / twice”. Fire hisses in “twice / passes”.
Some poems name a potter whose work they describe beautifully, as in ‘A life’:
How ripples of clay
move up the pot
like breath –
Descriptive passages in a couple of longer poems (still under 20 lines) are the only place where some of the language feels a little less striking, for example in ‘The globe jars’:
Dark blue-black glaze –
cluster like a galaxy
Yet this poem as a whole, reaching from the jars to skies, sea and the green / blue of Earth from space, is lovely. Part of Clay’s power is that each poem is a facet of the whole. I’d like to quote from all 18 pages – for example ‘The messenger’, in whose seven lines a visitor appears, quotes a verse from the Tao Te Ching about the usefulness of emptiness in pots, and is “gone, / leaving footprints in the snow”.
The pamphlet has a Taoist, Buddhist feel – unifying, harmonising, rejoicing in the mystery of life and death. Each poem settles in the mind. In the last one, ‘Gift’, someone gives a bowl she’s made,
its porcelain so smooth
you could hold it all day
in your hands, cup it on your lap,
gaze at the colour of its glaze –
this rare and lovely
the bowl a small circle of sun
which will become
There the pamphlet ends, in a blaze of sun, “spring-light” and a dash. It was published just before Elizabeth Burns’ early death in 2015. The reader may feel that Clay is to her as water jar is to spirit, in this four-line poem:
in North Cameroon
a woman’s spirit
after her death
may take up residence
in her water jar
Fiona Moore, Sabotage
Elizabeth Burns Wayleave Press ISBN 978-0-9928946-9-6 £5.00
Like the precious Lucie Rie pots conjured up here in Burns’ small poems on the art and composition of pottery from clay, I am inclined to treat this pamphlet – Burns’ last published work in her lifetime – with great care. I previously reviewed Burns’ other Wayleave Press pamphlet A Scarlet Thread (2014) which was inspired by the works of Scottish artist Anne Redpath. Besides the fine poetry inside, it was a handsome pamphlet, but aesthetically Wayleave Press have made quite a leap forward with the more generously proportioned Clay. The poems in Clay can perhaps be considered meditations on the things artists have made out of clay, never once forgetting that we come from and return to clay. The poems may be modestly sized, but they are every bit as moving to me as Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”. Burns’ links the act of birth to that of making pots, as in ‘Potter-midwife’ where the finished pot is a clean warm baby:
in the centre of the bowl a tiny nub of clay – its navel.
The pamphlet is structured so that it begins with celebrations of artists and the triumphs they make out of clay, but towards the end of the collection, the poems take on a deeply ontological resonance, and all the happenings and vicissitudes of a life can be contained in the beautiful spiral of a glazed pot:
circling a wide white bowl and ending in the centre with a fleck of gold. (from ‘Spiral’)
The ambition and scope of the poems, too, expands towards the end of the pamphlet so that the earth itself might almost be / a vast potter’s wheel and the artisans working in clay actually imbue something of their anima or life-force into what they make. One of my favourite poems here is Burns’ poem ‘Sacred’ after William Staite Murray. In this poem, the potter challenges the dogmatic idea that:
[…] it’s forbidden to use for the Mass a pottery chalice which – being breakable – cannot house God.
The potter does so by arguing that there is no better tribute to God than a pot in which the artist leaves his life-force, as a sacral vessel. Not all of the poems here are simply life-affirming, for instance ‘A life’ shows us again how something animate is made when the pot is made, but that once it’s made, it risks being broken:
How this suddenly shattered human being is like a broken pot –
Having established that the pot can be a receptacle of the spirit, Burns also shows how it can serve to emphasise a loss, such as the tactility of a cup held in the hands which encloses the hollow centre and makes the speaker feel as if I could somehow hold your loss. There is certainly an extra pathos added to these poems that mourn the deaths of others, considering how close Burns was to death when she wrote them. In ‘His ashes’ and ‘Her ashes’, the worldly remains of the potters are put back into the clay so that twice he passes through fire which is a startling image, not of loss but of renascence. The closing poem ‘Gift’ finds the speaker reunited with their favourite bowl, one you could hold all day with a rare and lovely / almost-primrose yellow glaze:
the bowl a small circle of sun which will become spring-light –
I am struck by these hyphens Burns used to sign off her poems, as if there is always more poetry to come, avoiding the finality of a full-stop. Like the bowl above, the overriding sense I have of these poems is as givers and bringers of light, and I believe, as Burns believed in the potters she gives tribute to here, that something of her spirit is contained in what she has created. The pamphlet as an object is beautifully crafted and the poems match this, making it a fitting valedictory statement from Burns, and something that contains elements of her life and the loss we now feel since her death.
Richie McCaffery, London Grip
A few days ago I received a copy of Elizabeth Burns’s posthumous volume, Lightkeepers. Born in Scotland, Elizabeth died in 2015 aged 58. Her last poems are brimful of her characteristically scrupulous compressed lyric composure. In every pure line she discerns where the spirit visits and is welcomed into ordinary places, a recovery room, a kitchen, an old cupboard. Through the grace and power of her language these places become portals into the sacred, which is (in her work) always down-to-earth and full of utter reality, as here:
… and Bach himself
who is like a mountain covered in wildflowers …
—from Listening to Bach’s B Minor Mass in the Kitchen
This is Elizabeth Burns’ last volume, edited by two friends after her early death; I understand that she had been suffering from cancer for several years. The opening poem looks at her ordeal without self-pity:
The recovery room
is where they wheel you afterwards; a kind of limbo
– place between earth and heaven where the body lies
before ascending – where you drift from sleep to waking.
There’s a quiet, end-of-the-day feel, the nurses talking softly.
One brings you water, another helps you to your feet
and asks you how you like your tea. You put on slowly
your own clothes, totter over to the sofa,
the table set with magazines, a tin of biscuits. And this
seems all you’d ever need: the peaceful room
A great many of these poems are about creating peaceful spaces – listening to Bach in the kitchen, moulding pottery, contemplating the flower paintings of Winifred Nicholson. They are likely to have a special appeal for women, whose experiences, as housewives and mothers, have for so long been considered trivial. Burns treasures ‘commonplace’ objects like a basket of eggs, an old battered dresser, cloths sewn by female ancestors, her grandmother’s copy of Little Women: A Story for Girls. That particular book is valuable not because it is very good but because it affirms the bond between mothers, daughters and sisters, and demonstrates that ‘even girls’ can write. She isn’t an aggressive feminist. But in ‘The hours’ she wishes that Burne-Jones’ soulful women would step off the canvas, cease to be men’s muses and do something, anything interesting.
Looking at an old issue of The Interpreter’s House, where I published some of her poems, I recall how ‘In the butterfly house’, winner of the 2005 Myeloma Awareness competition, celebrates a group of children who are ‘learning the creative life …. waiting for the idea …. for the notes to sound pure, for the colour to be perfect’. ‘Lightkeepers’, the lovely title poem of this collection, affirms that each person has a ‘fiery, unquenchable self’. And Burns thinks it important that each spark of fire should be cherished and that we should look for meaning and value in ordinary lives:
suited my father, back in the fifties when he was lean and spare,
living in the tiny house at the plain address, 1 Back Lane,
with a packing case for a table where he pours tea for his friends
who live in a caravan and have come round for a bath –
He and Mum eat bashed tins of veg from the canning factory.
He has no car, he cycles everywhere, and when I am born
and it’s a Sunday with no buses, he hitches to the hospital.
When my mother brings me home at last, it’s Christmas Eve
and because there’s no money for a tree, he’s made one
out of plywood with his fretsaw, a cut-out he props up
on the wedding-present sideboard. Look how the standard lamp
casts its soft glow over the wooden tree, the bowl of fruit
and vase of daffodils given in celebration of my birth (fresh grapes
and flowers in winter!) Even my father’s eyes if we could see them
would be shining, for he is fuelled by love for his new bride,
his baby daughter. My father at this moment in his life
owns very little, yet if you’d asked him if there was anything
he needed, he’d grin and say he lacked for nothing.
This is a collection full of marvellous poems: ‘A revolution’, which points out that you can’t just abolish the past; poems about the Brontes; about paintings (with special reference to women in the Bible stories); about anonymous craftsmen (‘The hare’). But I am especially haunted by one from an earlier collection, ‘The Brightest Star’, about the astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who also died in her fifties and is half-forgotten:
Cancer eclipses her.
By the time they think of her for the Nobel, she’s dead.
This was written some years ago, but it’s an uncanny parallel. I am left with the feeling that here is a great poet, who has gone too soon, and whom I didn’t sufficiently value when she was alive.
Merryn Williams, London Grip
In Acumen 85 I wrote briefly in praise of Elizabeth Burns’ booklet Clay, here, now, is a larger collection from the same publisher (Wayleave, 8 Buoymasters, St. George’s Quay, Lancaster, LA1 1HL). Lightkeepers (74pp ; £12.00) has been edited by Gerrie Flowers and Jane Louth, friends of the poet. Burns’ work is permeated by a sense of how the sacred is present in the ordinary. In ‘Lilies’, the second poem in this collection, she recalls (and celebrates) a conversation with an unnamed interlocutor:
How you came on the bright afternoon of wind and sun
with your arms full of lilies and a box of eggs,
and we sat in the garden at the table with the cloth
made by our great aunt, and drank tea, ate scones,
and talked of how an object becomes sacred; as does
a space, made special by the laying out of cloth and flowers;
…. You’re here for an hour,
and our lives are suddenly fresh, alive to possibility,
opening up like the petals of the lilies overnight.
These closing lines might stand as a statement of how Burns’ poetry works on its readers.
Some of her poems are the verbal equivalents of the finest of still-life paintings, in which objects are considered, looked at and empathized with so intensely that they do indeed take on a sacred quality. She is a Morandi of English-language poetry. In ‘The Eggs’ she rearranges eggs much as Morandi endlessly rearranged his bottles and vases:
They are layered in trays made of soft blue cardboard,
the colour of sugar paper. I place the heavy, fragile tiers
on the floor, then the table, move them from room to room
so the eggs are haloed with morning or evening light,
cast their shadows onto one another They become
a presence in the house. I love their magnitude,
their plenty, the rows and rows of them,
the different ways of ordering and counting them.
Their ranks of sameness, and their slight differences.
Elsewhere, she writes of a vase and
How the shape of it, like two sphees
melded, one above the other, resembles
the roundness of a body.
Burns could ‘do’ landscapes and people too. She was a fine, meticulously unfussy poet of crystal-clear perceptiveness. She deserves to find more readers and Lightkeepers is recommended warmly to all.
Though the work of Robert Rehder is very different from that of Elizabeth Burns the Still-Life was an important point of reference for him too, as in ‘Hello (or Wednesday)’ from I’m back and still returning, edited by Wolfgang Gortschacher (Poetry Salzburg, University of Salzburg, Department of English and American Studies, Unipark Nonntal…………………….Austria, 144pp, £11.50……..
The still life appeals to me
Because of the disorder of my life.
I feel dispersed, scattered.
Look, there’s an oyster that’s not in the dish.
I like the way the rich-looking liquid
Slides around the oyster when you lift it,
The shell not quite brimfull,
The way the sea quietly moves around a rock
At low tide.
Gauguin hasn’t painted this,
Buy they have that wet look,
The knife is placed so that the handle
Acumen – January 2017
Lightkeepers is a first full-length collection from Wayleave Press, a publisher known for its beautifully produced pamphlets, including three by Burns. So who better to publish this posthumous collection – Burns died in August 2015 – and to bring together poems written since her previous full-length volume (Held, published by Polygon in 2010). Her editors, the poets Gerrie Fellows and Jane Routh , have brought skill and deep knowledge to this most painful of tasks, and in their Notes (an afterword) they explain that their intention was not to memorialise but to produce a collection as close as possible to what Burns would have produced herself. It is a numinous and life-enhancing collection.
It opens, post-treatment, in ‘The recovery room’ – ‘place between earth and heaven where the body lies/before ascending …’ with this ‘ascending’ playing with the reader’s expectations by becoming, in the last line, the return to the everyday world – ‘ascending into cold fresh air, the winter on your skin’. It’s a poem of small detail, peaceful and kind; while it contains intimations of death it is warm with the touch of the living. The collection ends with ‘Spiral’, a poem which accompanied the Edinburgh exhibition ‘Potter, Painter, Poet’ in which a twist in clay on the potter’s wheel ‘…travels on invisibly / beyond the turning earth / and up into the whirling star.’ Burns lets her language make connections, lightly and with a sure touch; she delights in movement, the merging of the real and the spiritual, and the visible containing the invisible.
She is drawn to painters and their work: ‘In the house of Arnolfini’ where ‘He looks out from under the brim of his hat //knowing that nothing in his life before / has been as unpredictable as this.’ In Annunciation’ she places the event in Hammershoi’s cool interior, where the first hint of the angel seems ‘just a finger of sunlight touching her neck.’ In ‘The Visitation’ she translates Spencer’s painting of Elizabeth and Mary into the milkmaid’s language mixed with a sense of the miraculous.
She listens to how music works. ‘How music travels’ opens ‘How ordinary this is and how peculiar’; the poet listens to a CD by a Japanese choir as she makes a motorway journey at the start of January, and echoes the phrasing of this Back cantata by repeating key works throughout the poem, bringing together the idea of performers, the manuscript, technology, travel, time. Again, she brings in the word ‘miracle. In ‘Listening to Bach’s B Minor Mass in the kitchen,’ the Mass accompanies her making bread for her daughter’s birthday breakfast in a kitchen full of random memories; it’s been a day of ‘phone calls and everything else’ but now ‘Bach will keep me afloat’. It does; the music takes over – the sense of time and place dissolving, so what divides us from the past and elsewhere, and from each other, falls away, and everything’s connected and we are all drops of water in this enormous breaking wave.
Throughout her life Burns collaborated creatively, both as a writer and a teacher. It shows in the humanity of her poems, and her constant delight the texture of the world around her. Wayleave Press have been true to her spirit.
D A Prince
A Scarlet Thread
On paper, Elizabeth Burns’ spare and elegant pamphlet A Scarlet Thread is a short sequence of poems dedicated to the life, work and memory of Scottish painter Anne Redpath (1895-1965). Yet, there is a feeling of substance and time-well-invested when reading this collection of ten short poems, and there is also a sense that Burns is delving much deeper than most ekphrastic poetry we see nowadays (the type that Paul Batchelor has cheekily said poets indulge in to cheer themselves up when they’re stuck for better ideas). There is a much more synergetic force behind Burns’ poems than merely the poet responding to the surfaces of canvases. The opening poem ‘Tweed’ seems to subvert the usual art-speak of exhibitions and catalogues by showing a voice responding to colour in highly private yet specific ways, such as the colour of a lilac sea at Pittenweem. We are shown ways in which the poet may follow in the footsteps of a late, great artist, but in a way that ensures the individuality of each artist is upheld, preserved:
I used to climb the same worn common stair as she did,
when I lived above her old flat in the New Town: our flat
its twin (…)
But how different the kitchens: ours with its cold ox-blood floor,
its dripping twin-tub, the daily smell of the landlord’s
. burning toast;
hers, a kaleidoscope of colour…a room at once joyous and utilitarian, containing perhaps her golden table, golden cups, her
. painted cockerel.
. [‘The common stair’]
There is a tension in many of the poems between colour and historical events, with World War Two running beneath many of the poems and artworks:
(…) here in the foreground,
a glimmer of gold in the tree, a streak
of pale apple-green on the ground, a foretaste
of what is to come – the end of the war, and then,
fresh out of college, travelling, being in love,
living in France, soaking up colour and heat.
. [‘Painting the Borders in wartime I’]
These poems deal with Redpath’s travels through Spain and the impact of different lights and experiences on her work, but the collection closes on a return to the hard-wearing tweed and themes of war, how a fabric as seemingly dour as tweed is often made up of a spectrum of colours, how there is a magical quality even in the most quotidian of settings:
All those dour, post-war years, she painted brightness,
a glimpse of something bolder, full of possibility
– you might paint your own chair orange, wear red slippers –
her colours like flecks in tweed, flowing through darkness.
Richie McCaffery, London Grip
A Scarlet thread
Elizabeth Burns’ poetic interests keep her very close to art and artists. She interrogates art as a poet, working in collaborative projects with painters and craftspeople to add an extra dimension or view, through poetry. Here is a new and exquisitely produced pamphlet of just ten poems, all working off the title image. They are an homage to Scottish artist Anne Redpath (1895-1965) and a delving into what made or helped her, to paint in the distinctive way she did. The simple title image comes from Anne’s childhood memory of watching her father, a tweed designer, as he wove. She was struck by a surprising red thread that ran through the apparently dull, grey cloth. The image stayed in the growing artist’s imagination and had a lasting impact on her work.
The poems trace how that vivid experience influenced her painting both technically and emotionally, whether it be border landscapes or domestic still life pictures. The memory becomes the cue and signature for unexpected outbreaks of colour, that shout out for verve and boldness and add extra meaning and narrative. This is what the poet sees in ‘Painting the Borders in Wartime 1 (Landscape with Mill, 1918)’: But here in the foreground, a glimmer of gold in the tree, a streak of pale apple-green on the ground, a foretaste of what is to come – the end of the war…. ….being in love… The sequence is a mix of biography and commentary on Redpath’s life and work, producing a descriptive argument for the importance of colour as a gesture and an attitude to life; as a counter to darkness. The pursuit of the single image becomes a problem for me in the poems which I find over literal and too narrowly focussed. The message repeats itself and I find its treatment too obvious. But they have provoked me. Formally, they achieve a compression of detail, background and foreground (much like a painting, I now realise) which, when you look at the scope of information, and how tightly and lightly it is held, is a feat of crystalisation, ‘Her Eldest Son’ and ‘Spain’, being good examples. And subjectively, the insistence and singularity of purpose, forced me to give more and deeper attention to the formative power of early images on our perception and how we may be lucky enough to translate the best of them into action. It’s a simple idea, but that is Burns’ gift, making it undismissable.
Sarah Hopkins, Stride