At the pre-launch that I attended on 10/12/2011 the poet mentioned his interest in nature and detail, about how many types of birds he knew the Latin names for when he was young. In a Guardian article Ruth Padel writes "But deeper even than metaphor is the way poetry and science both get at a universal insight or law through the particular ... both arrive at the grand and abstract (when they have to) through precision. Scientists and poets focus on details. Poetry is the opposite of woolly or vague. Vague poetry is bad poetry - which, as Coleridge said, is not poetry at all. Woolly science is not science". This book certainly isn't vague.
The poet pointed out that bird-egg enthusiasts are nearly always male. Model-train fans are too. Neither of these interests seem concerned with how things work - what you see is what you get. Precision with words (from typesetting to poetry) seems a less gender-biased trait, and is concerned with effect, not merely looks. Throughout this book care's been taken at the lower levels (type-setting; word choice and economy) to help the content shine.
A wintery leit-motif runs through the early poems. In the title poem the persona prepares to write against the backdrop of a universe that "feels like a vast deep freeze"
Now you can settle|
to the scratch of a pen in praise of primordial fire
with its lapping sound, as earth in its tilt turning round
swings Orion up sparking like a spaceship
of light from behind the black burial mound of that hill.
At the start of the next poem, "Processional at the Winter Solstice", darkness still dominates - "He has gone down into darkness at the wrecked end of the year". This time "Shop windows glint" heralding light's recovery
He lies as plain as frost-dust where those starving thrushes call,|
And his lime and ray-struck armoury could hardly be less small
On the anvil of beginnings in the sun's gate on the wall.
"Young Snow" captures a morning. Then there are some egg-collecting poems. I like "Sacrifice", the guilt of egg stealing tied up with other emotions
Opening the cardboard box that had held|
a long winter coat for my mother out of the catalogue
He looks at his egg collection, "arranged in sawdust" - "In those days, robbery was my form of love". In "The Whitethroat at Hamilton Bus Station" the relation to nature becomes one of identification - seeing a bird "fresh from Africa" that others seem not to notice, the persona says "I feel I possess some secret code" then thinks "he sings to me". In a later poem "My father's toy trains were his birds". A block of poems is about creatures (snails, frogs and wasps) - all good. I like "Take off" too - a Martian poem.
Part II is mostly taken up by two long poems. I like the coal section of "Light Up Lanarkshire" "Where it slept for millions of years/ Like some perversion of the fairytale princess/ Awaiting the kiss of her lover./ While over its sleeping abundance, out in the upper air, everything happened,/ Men were inventing, inventing, inventing./ The age of steam required to be fed". I like the anecdotes at the end of section II of the poem. Here, and earlier I wondered whether there were short stories to be made from this material. Jon Burnside might use these revealing anecdotes and zoomed-in detail to lay a trail of character development. I liked "Exposure"
Part III has poems about a father and other miscellanea often to do with middle age or looking back. "Christmas Oranges" features clementines - "fragrance of orange on the tips of the fingers -/ peeling away/ like a plaster from skin/ segment by segment/ held up to this morning light/ ... to check for the shades of pips". "Goose in Middle Age" is perhaps my favourite poem.