The Antigonish Review recently tackled The Stone Skippers, Ian Burgham’s dazzling poems that explore the central core of our humanity upon the Canadian literary landscape.
The Stone Skippers
by Ian Burgham. (Tightrope Books, 2007. $21.95, 65 pp.)
E ach of these poems may be a love poem, because “all poems are love poems,” as the epigraph to “Unforgiveness,” borrowed from Mary Cameron, insists. And many of these poems may be, as Roland Leach’s introduction to this collection convincingly argues, about “longing, desire and distance.”
But the poems of The Stone Skippers are also a challenge, and from the beginning, with the titular poem itself, the reader is asked to try and find those memories, remember those promises to the self, all but forgotten, and enter into a collection not of poems, but a collection of those moments that make memory, childhood, love, loss, despair, awe, and calm. It is a wonderful, terrible collection, a pleasure to read and, with its melancholy cover art and thick, generous paper, a pleasure to hold in your hands.
Ian Burgham addresses the reader directly and half-scolding, half-encouraging, asks us to put all our grown-up distractions aside, letting us know money and will, those great adult conquerors, will not help us here, and childhood promises to ourselves cannot be refound “as if you could will it … as if you knew the direction.” There is an empathy to this dressing-down though, as Burgham laments with us, shares with us that he knows about waking up alone and lost in the middle of the night:
And if you had memory, and didn’t wake up in broken
nights with your hand your throat counting the relentless
ticks and tocks of the clock as though your heart was
running out of beats, you could know all this again – wake up,
as if in the light of another world, feeling perfect skipping stones
beneath your fingers.
There is no shame in this, Burgham is telling us. He knows this is hard, and he comes by this knowledge honestly. After a full career in the publishing industry, his business folded, and Burgham despaired – and turned to writing poetry. While his writing has been published in such journals as dANDdelion, Harpweaver, Queen’s Quarterly, and The Literary Review of Canada, this is Burgham’s first collection of poetry.
And his poems do help. “The Stone Skippers” serves as the portal, setting the reader on the way, and it creates the mindspace to allow the poems to work their magic. The second poem, “Take This Pleasure on Trust” is further reassurance. This is a poem about the darkness before the dawn, the desperation that very nearly takes over, but something saves us, something only articulated in poetry, that swoops in and leaves us, as it always does, and “Again you are rescued. Again you are surprised.”
As Roach’s introduction promises, there are many love poems, most very short, nearly all about the moments that we are alone, the absence of love or a lover all that defines these moments. It is not the ocean that is smelled, but the space that a lost lover leaves behind for the ocean’s smell to fill; it is not the gulls that are heard, but the quiet that is left behind that the gulls’ cries can fill. The lines of “Cellphones, Long Distance” are painful:
I’m out here this evening deciding
to leave you, considering the loss,
feeling the disintegration of the world
- but the space this absence makes is filled by something full of wonder and dread, and despite the emphasis on death, very alive –
Panic invades the screams of the warring gulls
in their glides over breakers. Their fight
over cadavers along the tideline
has become my business.
These moments that Burgham has promised to bring to us – or us to – are, of course, not always pleasant. We are being rescued, yes, but rescue isn’t easy, and death comes to all of us. A pair of poems early in the collection, “When I Am a Ghost” and “Since We Have Loved this Well,” remind us of this, but their presence is not an excuse for wallowing in self-pity or rushing in a panicked desire to live, live, live! They are quiet, tender moments of reflection, anticipating loss, written with the instruction to “Remain calm when you discover that we are / born to die” and not to worry. Burgham explains,
Remain calm when you discover that we are
born to die. That’s why there’s a toothless grin
on the face of the dawn. And this is what gets
left behind – a confession of birds that’s sung
for connection again and again as I once sang it
when I was free and the morning sun breathed me.
Loss is an opportunity for remembrance and connection. The crunch of gravel beneath our feet, the smell of rain, the softness of moss beneath our fingers – these are all potential surprises that hold the presence of our loved one gone.
As much as these poems hold moments of loss within them, they also are filled with sunsets and sunrises, those touchstones of the day, demanding – graciously, without desperation – pause and consideration. But always there is the darkness of loss, the shadow of death, and though the reader may enjoy the beauty of a sunset, the poem “Remembrance” reminds us “Last Post” is being played. Death is never far from us.
And there are many funerals, coffins, suicides, plans for death, anticipations of loss. Burgham’s poems address them all unflinchingly. “Open Casket” is about what comes after you learn to love – you learn to grieve, and it is learning “the possibility of change.” It seems like a gift, not a burden.
Two poems begin, “The morning of the funeral” because these are the times we must – for reasons we would rather hadn’t happened – pause, consider, face moments past and present. And just as these poems challenge, the poet reports that he, too, was challenged, and was asked,
“Do you really imagine there are
shortcuts to living?”
Living is difficult, these poems tell us. In “Suicide – The Thin Line,” Burgham explains matter-of-factly that
Living is a thin line of choice
a constant negotiation.
This is hard work, but it is worth it. For always the opening poem, “The Stone Skippers,” is with us. Waking up panicked and rushed with no memory and only a sense of time slipping quickly through our fingers is an easy state to fall into, but it is a miserable one. Facing loss and the spaces it leaves for us is painful, dreadful, and has its potential for despair. But it also comes with opportunities, connections, and surprises. And this emptiness, in its own way, is full, and the loneliness complete. This collection is a coming to terms with loss, and it leaves us with comfort, not fear.
As Burgham asks of us,
Leave me alone here on the gravel walk.
I have joined the lively dead.
Such is the terror of Burgham’s poems, but also such is the joy.
Ian Burgham is an associate of the League of Canadian Poets. In 2004 he won the Queens University Well-Versed Poetry Prize. He is a graduate of both Queens University and the University of Edinburgh, and has lived for extended periods in various parts of the world. He served as a senior editor at Canongate Publishing in Edinburgh during the early 1980s. His poems have been published in a number of literary journals and magazines including dANDelion, Queens Quarterly, Scottish Arts Journal, Harpweaver, and the Literary Review of Canada. Burgham has had one poetry book published in the United Kingdom: Confession of Birds, (2003 chapbook). His first full collection of poems, The Stone Skippers, will be published in Australia and New Zealand by Sunline Press, Perth (introduction by Newcastle Prize winning poet, Roland Leach) and, in the UK by MacLean Dubois Publishers in February 2007 (Introduction by novelist and poet, Alexander McCall Smith). He is currently working on his third collection. Ian works as a volunteer to further the efforts of the Griffin Prize for Excellence in Poetry. He is an adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at Queens University.
His latest novel, The Grammar of Distance is due out this Spring from Tightrope Books. In The Grammar of Distance, Ian Burgham writes from his gut and his heart. His imagery is, by turns, sensuous and rough-hewn, soft and hard. The poems crackle with sonic energy; they whinny and stamp. They whistle in the dark. His poetic landscapes frequent the windswept coasts of Scotland; but in this collection, we also find him doing terribly Canadian things like snowshoeing, surveying, chopping wood. Sometimes Al Purdy can be heard in Burgham’s voice and, occasionally, Patrick Lane. His penchant for storytelling and Celtic elegiac moods makes him a solid candidate for the position of poetic counterpart to Alistair MacLeod. Like all strong poets, Burgham’s imagination breaks past borders. Tribal and intense, his poems are conversations with loved ones, lost ones, and all the poets with storms in their bones. They are feisty. They rant. They grieve. They celebrate. Burgham is a thinker, a philosophical poet, a restless soul who asks big questions.