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September 2004 Poem of the Month

Homage to Kare Kivijarvi
John Burnside

The third flight in twenty-four hours.
Travelling over flow-land, night setting in,
each scatter of light in the darkness a tentative gold
that, somewhere else,
is desk-lamp; headlights; home.

Behind me, a sunset recurs
again and again:
rose-grey, permanganate, cinnabar, mother of pearl;
ahead, a thousand miles of rocks and snow;

but what I picture, staring through the dark,
is someone in a narrow coastal town
- a string of lights against the naked sea -
a man, perhaps, beneath a yellow bulb,
in some old store room, working on a clock,

or taking a chainsaw apart with everyday skill
and patience: a man in faded middle-age
who knows a thing or two, but rarely talks

and when he does, his voice is dark and slow,
like water lapping at a wooden dock,
more sound than sense, but none the worse for that,
with darkness all around him like a veil
and someone calling, from the kitchen door
- his wife, his daughter, standing in the light
I see from far above - to say it's time
to stop for now, to come inside and eat,

her voice half-heard, as something overhead
- a splash of light against the wavering sky -
drones through the clouds, mechanical, bereft.

The great Kare Kivijarvi was a Finno-Norwegian photographer, from Hammerfest, North Norway. He was born in 1938 and died in Cyprus in 1991.

About the Author

John Burnside (left) with Yuli Gugolev, in Moscow, September 2000

John Burnside has published eight books of poetry, a collection of short stories and four novels, of which the most recent is Living Nowhere (Jonathan Cape, 2003). His new poetry collection, The Good Neighbour (to be published in February 2005) contains a number of poems set in the far north, especially the Troms and Finnmark regions of Norway, which he has visited several times, most recently to make a radio programme on the Riddu Riddu festival for the BBC (with producer Caroline Barbour).

John is currently working on a novel set in the Arctic Circle, and a memoir entitled A Lie About My Father.  He lives in East Fife where he teaches both Creative Writing and Literature and Ecology at St Andrews University.

The Inspiration Behind the Poem

John Burnside says "The origin of this poem - the sowing of the seed, as it were - it a moment on a journey through Scandinavia, one of those familiar moments of looking down from an aeroplane in mid flight and seeing a scatter of lights: a settlement, a farm, a cluster of houses below, somewhere in the flow-land between Denmark and Norway. I had been looking at pictures by Kivijarvi a few days before, and I had at the back of my mind, without my necessarily being aware of it, the photograph entitled, 'My Brother's House, Gjesvaer' ('Min Brors Hus') from 1965/6.

In some cases, the origin of a poem coincides with its composition - words, or rather, sounds taking form on the lips, and later, when the shape is sufficiently achieved, being set down on paper - but this is not always so; this poem took several months to change from a notion - an atmosphere, a spirit - into this chain of words that, hopefully, approximates that spirit.

It is a poem that touches upon the exquisite tension between freedom and belonging, between the need to be gounded and the wish to be lost in the sky, and - perhaps - it is another in a series of poems that, like some of Kivijarvi's work, explores the basic truth that the state we think of as home is not a place, or a set of given facts, but consists in that very tension between going and staying, between belonging and being lost, between here and there. This is why Kivijarvi's work is so special for me: he tells me stories about solitude and companionship that are both rich and mysterious, and he knows the vital truth that to be bereft is not necessarily a bad thing".

If you have enjoyed this poem, you can borrow a range of poetry from the Scottish Poetry Library, who also lend by post. Telephone 0131 557 2876 or email reception@spl.org.uk for more information.  For an online catalogue, poetry events listings and more featured poems, please visit the Scottish Poetry Library website.

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