FROM 'MAYA'S Soliloquy to Pablo [Picasso]’, the striking opening of the first poem of White Horses, it is clear Northern Irish poet Jo Burns is in control of what she is doing with her poetry in a way most debut collection poets simply are not.
White Horses is divided into four titled sections. The first, ‘Eclipsed’, is made up of 18 meditations on the life and work of Pablo Picasso. As the collection’s title suggests, horses are also a major theme for Burns. The second section includes ‘Shergar’s Last Race’, an imagined account of the famous racehorse’s final hours at the hands of the Provisional IRA whose alleged kidnapping of him was one of its less successful operations. The main problem was Shergar had never heard of the IRA and so was not intimidated by them in the way your average informer or supermarket executive might be: “The arch of a young eye in balaclava,/(who has never seen adrenaline like this before )...”
'In ‘Daffodils on the M1’, Burns looks back from her exiled vantage point at the high hope days of the Good Friday Agreement and also at what is currently being done to those hopes'
Another testament to Burns’ rare poetic maturity is how, in ‘Untranslatables in Babel’, she is able to face one of the darker questions – the inevitable decline, death, and decay of our physical beings – without either giving an inch to Rupi Kaur style high banality, or indulging in shock tactics: “The contours of the planet will one day leave/no further spot for us to explore anymore/as our confines shrink from suburbia//to old people’s home, coffin, atoms./But will some words still stay ours,/untranslatable? Ones we dusted on Sundays,/and never used...”
In the gloriously successful, and clearly autobiographical ‘Daffodils on the M1’, Burns comments on recent events in Northern Ireland with a rare combination of gravity and wit. The poem kicks off by sharply but fondly addressing what members of the Democratic Unionist Party like to call ‘the province’: “Admit it Ulster, the one thing you taught me –/horizons can flourish over the blackest/of ground. When trouble sinks into itself,/bells spring up from bulbs in unlikely places.”
Later in the same poem Burns looks back from her exiled vantage point at the high hope days of the Good Friday Agreement and also at what is currently being done to those hopes: “In ’98, you poked your head above loam. So,/mute, in Germany, bar Facebook and poems,/I’d rather write about blooming hope/or ending patriarchy. You see, I believe/in women. But Ulster, you’re wilting/under two who may foster your drought...”
I presume the two under whom Ulster is wilting are Arlene Foster and her sidekick Theresa May. This is a singular collection of poems from a poet whose work is rich with rewards for the reader.