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April 21, 2006

Like Father, Like Son? Lilian Pizzichini on John Burnside: A Lie About My Father - John Burnside

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

A Lie About My Father
by John Burnside
Pp. 336. London: Jonathan Cape, 2006
Hardback, 12.99

In his poetry, John Burnside allows rhythmic and verbal sequences to emerge unforced from his imagination, without much conscious intervention, finding their form on the page. His novels, in contrast, are the result of a controlled unleashing of metaphor and closely felt themes. They are significantly darker. The Dumb House (1997) describes children being used in a sinister experiment on language. The nature of hard-drinking, coarsened masculinity inspires The Mercy Boys (1999), and The Locust Room (2001) makes disturbing comments on male sexuality.

From his prose, one can glean that John Burnside had a difficult childhood. His poetry, however, celebrates nature. Whether that tells us something interesting about prose or John Burnside remains to be seen.

Born in 1955, he started writing poetry in his thirties. It took a lot of alcohol and acid tabs to get there. After his second stay in the rehab wing of a mental health secure unit, he turned to computer programming. Whilst sorting software he determined on joining the middle classes. But he needed a vent for his wildness. He wrote some poems, secretly, and sent them to magazines. His first collection was published in 1988.

His father died the same year, and this book, A Lie About My Father, speaks about him. His title warns the reader to disregard his memoir, and to treat it as fiction:

It's as true to say that I never had a father as it is to say that he never had a son.
Burnside Senior was a violent man, a man who never knew his parents and who lied about his illegitimacy, in spiralling flights of fancy, throughout his adult life. Burnside Junior describes the world of Working-class Scottish Man: morose, threatening drinkers shaped by guilt and machismo. Domestic violence, tight-lipped women, industrial squalor and gang violence permeated the condemned prefabs, overgrown gardens and faery-haunted woodlands of this poet's childhood.

Angels proliferate. Imaginary friends, a phantom brother, and a taciturn retreat to an inner world, where Burnside sheltered from the fear of violence that filled his home. Empty houses were his favourite haunt. And he had no fear of the "angels" that occupied them:

lighting the blackest corners with candles of pollen and wax, blurring the doorways with ice and myrrh, filling the kitchen cupboards with an odd scent, half-incense, half-dust.
Better to be frightened of ghosts and phantoms than a very real father is the message.

So his childhood passes in fear and fantasy; his imagination feeding on introversion; his poetry gathering force inside his head.

Adolescence brings Acid into the picture. There is nothing so boring as hearing about other people's dreams and drug trips. I'm afraid to say that this remains the case, even in this careful writer's hands. His imagery fractures and remoulds itself miraculously, but drug trips are drug trips are drug trips, and Acid is boring. But the reader must endure: barbiturates, hallucinogenics, vodka and rum were Burnside's way of life for many years. And so, as his prose dutifully does its business, he details those years as part of his testament. The squats, the dodgy mates, the falling into oblivion.

There is a Rimbaudian delight in dancing with the devils and crafting lovely language from nightly encounters, but Rimbaud wrote poems about his excesses. This is prose, and chronology and ratiocination load heavy weights onto self-destruction. It is this last, his fall, that is the most interesting aspect of his then life. Because, just as he was slowly killing himself, or at least, scraping the bottom of the darkest part of his soul, his father, many miles away, was engaged in the very same project. Prose, in Burnside's case, works best when delineating the shifting dynamics of a father-son relationship. Burnside, one senses, at times, could not separate from his father the focus of his nightly dread though they did not see each other for years and never really spoke when they did. It didn't matter. Burnside Junior, like a Russian doll, was carrying his old man around with him, wherever he went. His father was inside him. He was him.

Every Halloween, Burnside has a vision. It's his dead father:

He has nothing to say to me, he brings no mercy, no forgiveness. He hasn't come to deliver a cryptic message or show me what he has found on the other side. All he is here to say is what he has said already: that we are not so very different, he and I; that, no matter how precious I get about it, a lie is a lie is a lie and I am just as much an invention, just as much a pretence, just as much a lie as he ever was.
If this is what it is to be a man, a human, then Burnside's prose has expressed it beautifully.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.

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