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John Burnside's Annunciation

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John Burnside’s ‘Annunciation with Zero Point Field’  from The Good Neighbour.


The title sets up a striking duality: that of religion mixed with quantum physics. The two elements create a harmony between their fields in that they may be seen to remark upon the same thing: energy from nowhere. The mythological status of the idea of gathering energy via the zero point field means that the two ideologies hardly clash.

The poem uses an angel to symbolise choice, an easy and effective way to avoid abstraction while keeping in tone with the poem’s imagery palette. At first the initial mention of it (a thing pulled from the ice) appears artificial in its separation from the narrative; but this is wholly appropriate given how this potential allegory reflects the viewpoint of ‘you’. The collision of this take on the angel and the narrator’s is another aspect of this ‘household we have in common / but don’t quite share,’  how what we belong to, our home, is a thing that affects, and is affected by, all those who share in it.

So what choice does the angel imagery directly represent? Given the title, one could conclude the answer to be childbirth.  Burnside says: 'For me the emblematic element in the Annunciation paintings or Annunciation story is one of something divine confronting the soul and making a demand of the soul and throughout our lives we are faced with moments when, if we are receptive enough, we could find out something new about the way to live.'  So perhaps the hint of childbirth is a symbol in itself of this shared space, and the angel is a kind of emissary from ‘the guessed-at world where nothing has been said / but everything is on the point of speaking’  – the embodiment of a choice that has not been made but which, in not being made, has its own effects and constitution: the choice to belong to something or someone, one which is hardly consciously (except perhaps symbolically, as here) made or considered.

The tercets are a fair choice thematically given the tradition of associating Christian mythology with the number three, but the result is that some strophes are somewhat noticeably weaker than their counterparts. Nevertheless, the lineation enforced by the tercets creates a variety of clashes and juxtapositions between the poem’s narrative elements, such as in ‘locked in a chamber of bone / it has barely abandoned. / Sitting up late at night, in a clouded room.’  The ‘story’ and the situation of its telling collide to suggest it as an allegory for the situation of its narrator, ‘you,’ and of the super-narrator, the ‘I.’ The four/five beat lines lend the poem a sustained, unrolling rhythm that lets each trope blend into the next. The sonics are appropriate and not overwritten; ‘night’s / improbable apparatus’  is particularly noteworthy in its echoing of the prior ‘creak and whisper….’ Parts that are especially evocative are the angel’s voice: ‘the sound it will make when it speaks / [will be] like falling rain,’  and ‘the angel who cannot announce / the fact that, the moment it speaks, / it will fade to nothing,’  which is an extremely strong objectification of futility and the angel’s abstract, semi-real nature. Once taken, the choice evaporates.

The poem’s close is perhaps a little disappointing. Many poems end on three juxtaposing elements with the final one pulling the rest into focus, and this one does not even do so extremely well; the final item, ‘the dread of belonging,’  deflates the poem’s previous language of symbology and allegory and is generally far too expository.




Annunciation with zero point field
John Burnside

Sitting up late in the dark
I think you're about to tell me
that story I've heard before

of a creature pulled from the ice, or prised from a ditch,
its body a hundred years old, but the eyes intact
and hardly a trace of decay

on the frost-white skin;
and later, how they cut along the spine
and found two spurs of cartilage above

the shoulder blades: not wings,
or not quite wings,
but something like a memory of flight

locked in a chamber of bone
it had barely abandoned.
Sitting up late at night, in a clouded room,

I think you have something to tell
that I'd want to believe
no matter how improbable it seemed,

but that was long ago
and anyhow
we have so much that seems improbable

the household we have in common
but don't quite share,
sub voce songs, the garden's unnamed roses,

this angel that comes to our bed
in a shimmer of light
and hangs there, silent, waiting to be nourished.

You'd think it would choose its moment,
flickering out of the light and assuming a form
or coming to rest for a while

in muscle and tendon.
You'd think it was eager to speak
as if it had come

for no other reason than this, its annunciation
life-size, in human terms - an impending birth,
or something else we understand as grace -

the word in its mouth like a plum that has almost ripened,
the sound it will make when it speaks
like falling rain;

but this is the probable world, this is ourselves,
and the one thing we know for sure is that everything comes
by chance, and is half-unwilling,

memory, love, the angel who cannot announce
the fact that, the moment it speaks,
it will fade to nothing.

I've seen it on occasion, like a bat
flicking from wall to wall, its wings like tar
in the yellowing darkness;

I've heard the creak and whisper of the night's
improbable apparatus, lacewings and frost
and starlight on the rooftops like a veil

but nothing has ever spoken, nothing has come
from the elsewhere I measure out in songs and dreams,
although I glimpse, in spite of what I know,

the guessed-at world where nothing has been said
but everything is on the point of speaking:
you in your chair, looking up from a half-read book

as the angel who cannot exist is replaced by the given,
the sullen gift of everyday events:
the promise of rain, a footfall, the dread of belonging.
A small bit of criticism on John Burnside’s ‘Annunciation with Zero Point Field’ from The Good Neighbour.
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