Elizabeth Burns’ last collection (Lightkeepers, Wayleave Press, 2016) was edited by her friends and fellow-poets Gerrie Fellows and Jane Routh; it puts together the poems she wrote during the last years of her life. She didn’t have the time to publish it but asked her friends to do it for her. A few of the poems appeared in poetry reviews and in anthologies but most of them were unpublished when she died of cancer in August 2015.
A new fresh voice emerges from the collection, the reader has the sense of meeting her personally while reading her lines, they have the authenticity that only unpublished poems sometimes have. Her capacity of observing and perceiving reality, of making the invisible visible (as she said speaking about women’s voice), and the ordinary relevant, is so acute, insightful and unique that it made me experience things in new ways.
When she writes about some duck eggs (ten dozen duck eggs she found on her doorstep one day):
..... 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.
She communicates the preciousness of the gift and also the innate beauty of the eggs so common and special, a work of nature and of art at the same time to admire and cherish:
.......I want to keep them
on this windowsill and gaze at them each day –
their lovely shapes, the oval clear and pure,
as if they were holy, made for ritual;
and the way they are contained and unassuming,
holding inside themselves a freight of possibility.
A fruitful force emanates from these lines, they don’t seem to be written by a person at the end of her life, on the contrary they are vital, full of hope, compassion and care.
Her masterly use of enjambment in The Spool expresses the inner joy and mutual close communion in the act of sewing up some buttons with her daughter on the new dress the girl is going to wear in a school trip to an art gallery:
And here she is, early in the hot June morning, light on her feet
in her pretty shoes setting off with her camera, her sketchbook,
on the school trip to the gallery, the art college show; threading her way
down the street, heading out into the promise of this summer’s day.
In Clay, Plum and Lightkeepers, her last pamphlets and collection all published by Wayleave press, her poetry definitely develops in a deeply imaginative and free way, her poems are spare, tight and careless of what is inessential; instead she goes to the core of things. While her body was inevitably shrinking and her hair was falling, her poetry bloomed.
The intensity of everyday, strongly felt experiences is, for example, in the simple act of buying a second hand dresser in an antique shop:
a blue-painted dresser that was old and worn
and had six little drawers with knobs for handles,
a dresser that would fit exactly into my kitchen
The dresser is scratched and some of its paint
is wearing away, but its wood glows in the evening sun
and it holds a bowl of oranges, perhaps, or a jug of roses,
green candles, blown eggs, tulips, herbs, postcards;
The poem Lightkeepers is about following the traces of R.L. Stevenson in the east coast of Scotland near Edinburgh. His presence is everywhere together with the memories of her daughters’ childhood at the seaside. The Isle of May and Fidra lighthouses remind her of the writer’s family and are ‘beacons in darkness’, but all the happiness she gathered is ‘fragile as glass’ and momentary, ‘a lantern-slide lit for a moment’. The complexity of this poem seems to be resolved in the lines: ‘We’re lightkeepers, making ready/for sundown, revealing that tiny glimmer and refracting it’, showing the value of ‘the gleam/that makes us human’ and its inevitable fickleness. A sense of transience is in the last line: ‘we take that light we can to keep us through the night.’
Going through the collection is like having a journey in an apparently ordinary world perceptively observed and deftly written. From the comfort of the first poem, The recovery room (‘the tests are clear − ...the winter in your skin’), to the last one, Spiral (which was chosen to be attached to the scaffolding covering the Poetry Library in Edinburgh in October 2015), one spiralling sentence in two verses celebrating our earthen roots but also our never ending aspiration to something more, a spiritual dimension, whirling up into the sky and beyond.