The Bard from Bucks: a review of Will Burns’ Country Music

Will Burns is a local poet – and he deserves the title – whose first collection, Country Music, is a delightful debut, and this month’s Wendover News recommendation.

Not only will these poems awaken a nourishing love for carefully woven language, they direct our eyes to details we’d ordinarily miss in our day-to-day lives – restoring our love of the world from which the poems themselves spring.

In ‘Drive South Listening to Country Music’, the shared silence of a car journey between brothers is lovingly remembered through the ordinarily dull detail of an accelerator: ‘pedal steel flowing / into your silence like all your best fish’ is a delightful image of the deep current that charges the silence of our most intimate relationships.

This poem is lodged firmly and lovingly in the local, but yearns for a larger, more beautiful and encompassing horizon towards which love and poetry point: ‘I’m wishing it was a whole / continent we had to travel into […] a land ready to receive us / right to the edge of the mesa’. Will Burns’ vocabulary is as far-reaching as the geography of the collection: ‘mesa’, I learned, refers to the high rocky tablelands and plateaus in the arid areas of the United States.

But the poetic pedal steel that drives this collection is a profound attunement to human responsibility, and the utmost importance of care in our lives. ‘Fish Market in Normandy’ remembers the tragic and enormous loss of life during the Normandy landings of 1944 through the image of fish washing up on a beach ‘I saw more of the dead – / sifted onto the beach by the tide, / cold and sodden and still’; that word, ‘sifted’, is the bone-cold hinge on which the sentence swings, and it sends a shiver down the spine to think of humanity’s awful habit of reducing individual lives to an exercise in arithmetic. In ‘Iphone’, I felt the acute pleasure of eavesdropping on a well-tuned poet’s conversation with himself: ‘… ‘Outdated lists. / Clumps of acronymed chatter. / Somewhere, some huge news. / A code of communal despondence.’ And that last line – an electric one – draws prophetic attention to the very real danger of becoming digitally numb to human suffering.

Yet there is great consolation in these poems, too. A personal favourite, ‘A Man Made of Water’, remembers a lost grandfather, who, the poem implies (but the author might correct me!), has a naval background:

on the morning that he died,
it began to rain from almost
the exact moment that my father
called to tell me. And although
this would have been
too sentimental for both their
tastes, I was glad for a man
who more than any of us
was made of water.

The rain falling in sheets is a delightfully surprising image of continued life – even grace – and a
sensitive articulation of the deepest human intuitions about the afterlife. ‘The Light’, meanwhile, is a sweet and punchy poem that delights playfully in ordinary domestic tenderness: ‘you turn the light on / when you come / in the room. / Honestly, / it’s as simple as that.’ These poems are cause for nourishment indeed, and, as all good poetry does, it’s left my vision of the world shaken up and sharpened, refreshed and restored. If you like the flavour presented in this column, you can find a copy of the full collection via the author’s website, or our local Wendover bookstore:

 Reviewed by Rory Lavery, volunteer writer/sub-editor, Wendover News