LET’S DO IT : LATE POEMS
By Jim Burns
The Black Light Engine Room Press. 30 pages. £5. ISBN 978-1-9996379-1-0
Reviewed by Charles Ashleigh
Late poems? Does that mean they’ve arrived late? I suppose so. Jim Burns hasn’t published a collection of poems since Streetsinger (Shoestring Press, 2010), and his poetry rarely appears in magazines these days. His energies now appear to have been directed into the long reviews he writes for The Northern Review of Books, occasional articles for Beat Scene, and the annual collections of reviews and essays, and literary odds and ends from over the years, which appear under his name.
Age may well have played a part in what some might see as a diminution in his poetic output. There are several poems in Let’s Do It referring to the aging process, including one entitled “The Old Poet Speaks” which concludes wistfully, “I look at the pretty girls in the audience,/and think of the poems I used to write.” The title-poem itself is about realising that time is running out, and if you want to do something it’s best to do it now rather than leave it until later.
A reference in “History Lesson,” a poem about the realities of life in the Twentieth Century, tells us that Burns was nineteen, and in the army, in 1955, and that means he’s now into his eighties. And “Mill Walls,” one of the better poems in the book, goes back to a working-class childhood of cramped conditions and people in low-paid jobs. It also proposes that you can never really cast off your past.
Another, “All Experiences are Useful,” might seem to veer slightly towards the kind of “misery memoirs” that we are frequently afflicted with these days, but doesn’t really fall into that category, and the ending is surprisingly light. From other poems in this collection, and earlier books, Burns has never bad-mouthed his parents. So a poem about their human frailties needs to be seen for what it is and not a complaint. A sense of humour and understanding about the human condition can help to get one through experiences that others might think of as damaging.
A political angle inevitably pops up in Burns’s poetry. It’s here in “For Sol Funaroff” (a forgotten communist poet from 1930s New York), “Drunks and Bankers,” and I suppose, in “Getting By” and “Consultation,” both of which point to a general scepticism about authority in general: “Another leader has gone,/another leader has arrived,/but nothing has changed.” There may be a weariness with certain aspects of the world implied here, and that is, perhaps, also a sign of age.
This is a modest selection, both in terms of size and ambition. Most of the poems are fairly short, and the language is plain and unfussy, though Burns does occasionally display a taste for alliteration: “Weaving her way towards the water/with a wine glass in her hand.” The poems say what they have to say and let the reader take it from there.
Some of the poet’s interests, as expressed in the reviews and articles he writes, can be discerned without too much effort – jazz with Charlie Parker, painting with Jackson Pollock and the St Ives artists of the 1940s and 1950s, bookshops, especially second-hand ones where little discoveries can be made, nostalgia for old army friends, places visited like Paris, Zurich, Spain. And wine. As it says in “Getting By,” : “We order another bottle of wine,/and watch the rain drifting down.”