Wet Sand and Gasoline
Beachcombing in Fife with John Burnside
by Richard Clayton

Published: Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

On a bright midwinter morning, the Fife coast gleams. Calling this corner of the ancient kingdom “a fringe of gold on a beggar’s mantle”,1 James II of Scotland clearly knew his real estate. The “East Neuk” is a beautiful sleeve of farmland – hemmed to the south by the Firth of Forth – with fishing vil-lages every couple of miles until it elbows the North Sea at Fife Ness. Most things about the place – the seclusion, the tissue-papery sunlight and the sea mist known as the haar – seem quietly miraculous.

Standing on the shore of St Andrews Bay, just around the headland, I’m toe-to-tide with otherness. Despite the Tornados thundering in and out of RAF Leuchars, the sea has an immemorial power to captivate – holding sway over joggers, dog-walkers, even freelance journalists; each of us drawn along the ruminative strand of West Sands.

No surprise, then, that east Fife could claim to be the UK’s most poetic habitat, on a leading poets per capita basis. Douglas Dunn’s tenure at St Andrews University has much to do with it. But I like to think there’s something in the air that makes John Burnside, Robert Crawford, Kathleen Jamie and Don Paterson live and work nearby. Lyrical and meditative, Burnside’s poetry develops its own meteorology for the area – and that’s the climate I’m here to experience.

* * *

“strange things come/to those who live/by water”

Poets seldom cross the news radar – the only blips being prize-days or whenever Andrew Motion keeps a straight face about the laureateship – but “History”, a poem that observes father and son, in September 2001, “gathering shells / and pebbles / finding evidence of life in all this / driftwork”,2 is perhaps the most resonant 9/11 reflection that I’ve read. References are oblique, and there’s nothing kneejerk or preachy about the sentiments. Rather, Burnside portrays events as a shock to some wider ecosystem – “we trade so much to know the virtual / we scarcely register the drift and tug / of other bodies”.3 Irrespective of politics, he implies, we’ve all grown estranged from the natural regulations of the world.

It’s not the sort of message, if “message” it is, that’s actively condensed by the media bubble. But Burnside speaks to many of the “issues” percolating in editorial conference rooms: whether and how to reduce our demands on the planet; the role of religious belief in secular societies; the dislocation and rootlessness that modern life can engender. Of course, he doesn’t offer bullet points – handy hints on energy efficiency or what to do when the oil dries up – or, indeed, any doom-laden bulletin. Instead, his poems pick a path through the terrain he’s made his own: what it means to dwell on the earth.

If that sounds grandly philosophical, it’s actually funda-mentally simple. Burnside moves like a beachcomber: attentive, rigorous and aware that “strange things come / to those who live / by water”.4 He might have strong views about what he finds, yet his search is contingent, restless (punctua-tion hardly breaks his stride), improvised. Beachcombing is both a method and an attitude of mind, where “the trick is in the making / not the made.”5 It’s also a useful metaphor for thinking about Burnside’s writing and sense of place – particu-larly in The Asylum Dance, the collection that won the 2000 Whitbread Poetry Prize, and his two subsequent volumes, The Light Trap and The Good Neighbour.

* * *

“the light above the firth”

It’s so easy, as a fleeting visitor, to arrive somewhere and infer all sorts of immanent truths from first impressions. Coming from the city to the East Neuk, a rose-tinted perspective is inevitable. The fishing boats clank and bob in Pittenweem harbour. The crustacean I was eye-to-antenna with earlier may figure in my bowl of cullen skink at the “West End Bar”. Gulls do “flicker”6 overhead, and “the medieval lull / of inland farms”7 bends time as I walk the fields.

Yet having lived in rural Dorset, I’m wary of the curse of the quaint: how the outsider can ignore workaday realities. Not just those times when the rain won’t stop and the mind is muddied. But also that people have businesses to run, familiar cares and internet accounts. Nevertheless, I can’t help swoon-ing over the sunsets I’ve seen in Fife: half a dozen bands of colour (mint, orange, raspberry, blackcurrant, lemon and lime ice-cream) resolving into purple dusk. Or the dawn, rippling out of the haar, apple-soft. It’s hard not to regard such phe-nomena as benevolent.

Burnside pinpoints this special effect in The Asylum Dance. The poem Ports begins: “Our dwelling place / the light above the firth”.8 As both a geographic marker and a means of revela-tion, it illuminates what he strives to understand about “the notion of home”9 and, consequently, “the painful gravity of being settled”10 – since he isn’t readily grounded. Security and co-habitation bring limitations and “the dread of belong-ing”,11 as Burnside writes in The Good Neighbour.

Sometimes, “the shape of the wind on an empty street / is all you know of home”.12 At others, “home is a reason”13 (people to return to and responsibilities), or else it’s bundled with the mesh of information – “shipping forecasts / gossip / theorems”14 – that creates a local culture. Social identity, however, isn’t his primary concern. His yardsticks are sea-sonal, semi-mystical, talismanic. Repeating the tropes of light and dark, Burnside explores how the self reaches its accom-modation with nature.

Occasionally, reading him can be like listening to a secular sermon: I yearn for some wriggle room. But his environmen-talism – his charting “the brilliant commonplace / of all we take for granted”15 – makes me sit still and pay attention.

* * *

“an earth-tide in the spine”

Like the protagonists of his poem Adam and Eve, Burnside is “stunned with a local wonder”16 at the beauty of his surround-ings. But his canvas is larger than Fife alone. “Somewhere behind it all”, he maintains, lies “another world of charge and borderline / an earth-tide in the spine”.17

For Burnside, the spine is a sensory organ, a divining rod that links him, physically, with the planet’s “deeper pulse”.18 It’s the bell-wether of his “green” credentials. He writes of being “aware of everything / aware of shoals and stars / shift-ing around you / endlessly / entwined,”19 evoking what the scientist James Lovelock calls Gaia, the hypothesis that the earth and all its life forms are one, self-sustaining organism.

After 2005 – a year in which, as the headlines screamed, “nature struck back” – the idea that humanity could be more humble in the face of elemental forces is not mere eco-babble but practical advice. In his latest book, Nature Cure,20 Richard Mabey claims we’re increasingly “out of kilter with the rest of creation”, and that redressing the balance isn’t simply about “household management writ large”. I imagine Burnside agrees.

In  essays  and  poetry,  he  aligns  himself  with  indigenous people – groups such as the Sami, still better known as Lapps, from whom he borrows the myth of the earth’s living pulse; the concept being that the Creator placed the beating heart of two-year-old reindeer at the planet’s core, and as long as people hear this rhythm “all will be well”.21 But Burnside fears it’s become almost inaudible.

Instead of patronising indigenous people, he believes “we moderns”22 can learn from them. “Where I come from”, Burnside wrote in 2003, “home means something that mis-takes itself for permanence: it means possession, it means consumption”.23 In other words, tenancy rather than owner-ship should be the contract we make with the earth – coexistence not conquest. Arguably, parts of The Good Neighbour become too pedagogic in this respect. Generally, however, Burnside’s writing is sensuous enough to dilute the lecture. In a poem for Harald Gaski, the Sami activist and writer, Burnside celebrates “their works provisional, their dreams immense, / their children raised in memory and song”.24 Metaphorically, the Sami are beachcombers, too.

Such post-colonial kinship doesn’t seem faddish because Burnside also taps a native strain of British nature poetry, stretching back beyond the English Romantics to the Scots Gaelic bards. People have extolled the “renovating virtue”25 (in Wordsworth’s phrase) of the Great Outdoors ever since there was an indoors to leave behind. It’s simply that now, in the age of mass tourism, the problem is “how to be alive / in all this gazed-upon and cherished world / and do no harm”.26

* * *

“prayers that stay unanswered”

Writing in 1966, a hundred years after Thomas Hardy resigned himself to “Crass Casualty”27 governing the universe, the critic EDH Johnson lamented that “the study of natural history could never again address man’s moral and aesthetic faculties”.28 Well, never say never again. While I’ve no wish to legitimise the neocon mantra “intelligent design”, it’s as natural history that its advocates seek to present it. (Lord knows what Johnson would think of that – I found his book, The Poetry of Earth, completely by chance. It had once belonged to my aunt.) Nature writing is indisputably the locus of Burnside’s moral and aesthetic faculties. But he nips the Creationist fallacy in the bud. “Where logic seems apparent …”, observes a poem called The Hay Devil, “we go too far / imagining a god / of purposes”.29 That’s not to say religion is absent in his work. Far from it, religious discourse pervades his writing and, indeed, the words I’ve used to write about him and Fife. Yet it’s more cultural hand-me-down, I think, than genuflection.

Vestiges of religious language remain the most apt to describe our consciousness of nature. Perhaps this is because, as Richard Mabey suggests, “all natural metaphors are minia-ture creation myths, allusions to how things came to be, a confirmation of the unity of life”.30 But it’s as much a literary as a theological inheritance. Although the East Neuk has me in raptures, it doesn’t send me hurrying to the kirk.

Having outgrown childhood religion (“I could see / their omnipresent God was neither / here nor there”31), Burnside retains his capacity for awe. Realising science can’t measure metaphysical experience, he senses a universal hunger for grand narrative: “something in the world we cannot name / though each of us negotiates the form / it happens to assume”.32 His great moral endeavour, then, is to search for an idea of order – “something vast / that holds us all and never lets us slip”33 to replace or compensate for “prayers that stay unanswered”.34

Christian symbolism is acknowledged in the poem Kestrel, which refers directly to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Victorian classic The Windhover. “Though I am no believer”, Burnside writes, “I could find / the blue-bleak ember of an old / signifi-cance, the promise that remains unsayable”.35 However, his own rattlebag of beliefs contains earthy, “pagan”36 sympa-thies, a Buddhist-like emphasis on reincarnation and an almost shamanic sensitivity to “the otherlife of things”.37

* * *

“the promise of elsewhere”

Walking the coast path from Anstruther, where Burnside lives, to Elie, with its wide mouth of sand, I feel recharged within. It’s that wish-you-weren’t-here moment of spiritual right-sizing, away from the rat race, that many urbanites crave. For Burnside, however, that’s only stage one of reconnecting with nature. He doesn’t strip off and paint himself with woad, at least as far as I know, but there’s another setting to which he believes our lyric receivers can be tuned.

“Of course we escape,” he writes in The Good Neighbour, “even the sound of rain … is loophole enough … for all the given versions of the self”.38 What he wants to get back to is a “primal emptiness”39 of being. From this clean slate, percep-tion can start again. “Radical illumination”40 is Burnside’s slightly hippyish phrase for how “we understand / another life resides, / older than time / and dizzy with momentum”,41 alongside us, in the here and now.

At its most mystical, “the promise of elsewhere”42 signifies aboriginal dream-time and a forensic snapshot of evolution-ary process – “one broad presence that proceeds / by craft and guesswork”.43 This is quite a tangle of metaphors: partly indigenous myth, partly ecological theory, partly the Christian idea that Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. But there’s no need for dogma. Burnside’s best writing reflects just how much mystery we are never likely to unravel:

“Nothing explains the pull and lurch of the sky, how, sooner or later, each of us goes to answer; no logic stills the heartbeat in the earth:
it never stops, it knits within the bone, a world around the world we understand
waiting to be recovered and given names.”44

* * *

“a word for everything”

Naming is Burnside’s sacred rite: “whenever we think of home / we come to this”45 – whether it’s “a handful of birds and plants”,46 a street such as Tolbooth Wynd or plaice “the colour of orangeade”47 on a fishmonger’s counter – knowing the names of things is what distinguishes home from something foreign. Beyond basic familiarity, however, names are also the way to animate personality, and to classify the environment’s ceaseless “skitter and glide”.48 A couple of poems in The Good Neighbour record Burnside’s young son vocalising what he can see, “one object at a time”49 – a step defined as “the com-mencement of the soul’s / unfolding / self-invention / in a world / that shifts and turns”.50

That wonderful, symbiotic observation echoes a point the critic Jonathan Bate has made. Burnside’s work, he says, “turns on the paradox that we are both a part of and apart from nature”.51 Tellingly, the figure of Adam, the original namer and natural historian, appears regularly. Just as beach-combing is a game of rediscovery – identifying “these slow / dank angels”52 that the sea gives up – so Burnside tries to find “a word for everything … hallowed and round as a pearl”.53 Yet he knows his efforts to fix meanings are subject to the sheer flux of matter, its Ovidian transformations.

Burnside’s poetry works in “the gap between a sound / and silence”.54 Sometimes, as he writes in a new poem (published in Poetry Review last autumn), the latter is “the only good reply”55 to the beauty of Fife or any other landscape. After all, there’s nothing inherently consoling about it – the sublime doesn’t reside in coastal topography: it’s in our minds. Often, we settle for “that cold and salty pact / the body has with things unlike itself”,56 and only when we create “a sufficiency of names”57 – a vocabulary nuanced enough – does language begin to bridge the gap.

* * *

Back on the beach, staring at the sea has brought me to a “vivid standstill”:58 the same feeling I get from reading Burnside. Poetry doesn’t need to supply homilies. These insights may be “no more or less correct than anything / we use to make a dwelling in the world”.59 But, in a time of throw-away soundbites, they’re sustainable. As I head towards the car – the sky darkening – something seems renewed.


  1. Taken from a tourist information sign in Pittenweem.
  2. “History”, The Light Trap (Jonathan Cape, 2002), p 40.
  3. “History”, The Light Trap (Jonathan Cape, 2002), p 41.
  4. “The Unprovable Fact: A Tayside Inventory”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 69.
  5. “Koi”, The Light Trap (Jonathan Cape, 2002), p 3.
  6. “Ports”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 1.
  7. “The Unprovable Fact: A Tayside Inventory”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 71.
  8. “Ports”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 1.
  9. “Settlements”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 29.
  10. “Settlements”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 29.
  11. “Annunciation with Zero Point Field”, The Good Neighbour (Jonathan Cape, 2005), p 10.
  12. “Homage to Cy Twombly”, The Good Neighbour (Jonathan Cape, 2005), p 31.
  13. “The Hay Devil”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 50.
  14. “Ports”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 1.
  15. “The Painter Fabritius …”, The Good Neighbour (Jonathan Cape, 2005), p 78.
  16. “Adam and Eve”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 20.
  17. “Sense Data”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 12.
  18. “Sense Data”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 12.
  19. “Ports”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 3.
  20. Nature Cure (Chatto & Windus, 2005).
  21. “Journey to the centre of the earth”, John Burnside, The Guardian, 18 October, 2003.
  22. “Journey to the centre of the earth”, John Burnside, The Guardian, 18 October, 2003.
  23. “Journey to the centre of the earth”, John Burnside, The Guardian, 18 October, 2003.
  24. “By Kautokeino”, The Good Neighbour (Jonathan Cape, 2005), p 41.
  25. “The Prelude”, William Wordsworth, excerpted on The Wordsworth Trust website, www.wordsworth.org.uk
  26. “History”, The Light Trap (Jonathan Cape, 2002), p 42.
  27. “Hap”, Thomas Hardy, cited by Johnson, below.
  28. “Introduction”, The Poetry of Earth: A Collection of English Nature Writings from Gilbert   White   of   Selbourne   to   Richard   Jefferies, edited   by   EDH   Johnson (Gollancz, 1966).
  29. “The Hay Devil”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 46.
  30. Nature Cure (Chatto & Windus, 2005).
  31. “Fields”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 41.
  32. “The Painter Fabritius …”, The Good Neighbour (Jonathan Cape, 2005), p 83.
  33. “One Hand Clapping”, The Good Neighbour (Jonathan Cape, 2005), p 12.
  34. “Settlements”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 29.
  35. “Kestrel”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 63.
  36. “Blue”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 45.
  37. “Fields”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 42.
  38. “Annunciation with a Garland of Self-Heal”, The Good Neighbour (Jonathan Cape, 2005), p 33.
  39. “De Humani Corporis Fabrica”, The Good Neighbour (Jonathan Cape, 2005), p 5.
  40. “Travelling into the Quotidian: Some notes on Allison Funk’s ‘Heartland’ poems”, John Burnside, Poetry Review, Volume 95:2, Summer 2005.
  41. “Of Gravity and Light”, The Light Trap (Jonathan Cape, 2002), p 35.
  42. “Haar”, The Good Neighbour (Jonathan Cape, 2005), p 19.
  43. “Animals”, The Light Trap (Jonathan Cape, 2002), p 19.
  44. “By Kautokeino”, The Good Neighbour, (Jonathan Cape, 2005), p 43.
  45. “Ports”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 1.
  46. “Ports”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 1.
  47. “Ports”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 1.
  48. “One Hand Clapping”, The Good Neighbour (Jonathan Cape, 2005), p 12.
  49. “Pentecost”, The Good Neighbour, (Jonathan Cape, 2005), p 25.
  50. “De Anima”, The Good Neighbour, (Jonathan Cape, 2005), p 36.
  51. “Eco Laurels”, Jonathan Bate, The Guardian, 25 November, 2002.
  52. “The Unprovable Fact: A Tayside Inventory”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 68.
  53. “One Hand Clapping”, The Good Neighbour (Jonathan Cape, 2005), p 12.
  54. “Ports”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 3.
  55. “Responses to Augustine of Hippo”, Poetry Review, Volume 95:3, Autumn 2005.
  56. “Responses to Augustine of Hippo”, Poetry Review, Volume 95:3, Autumn 2005.
  57. “Adam and Eve”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 22.
  58. “The Unprovable Fact: A Tayside Inventory”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 67.“Ports”, The Asylum Dance (Jonathan Cape, 2000), p 8.

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