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My desert island poet

A review of I Put a Spell on You, by John Burnside. A book about love at its most bewitching, deranging and dangerous

31 May 2014

9:00 AM

31 May 2014

9:00 AM

I Put a Spell on You John Burnside

Cape, pp.273, £14.99

If I had to be marooned on a desert island with a stranger, that stranger would be John Burnside.

Not that he’s a literary Ray Mears: I rather doubt that catching fish with his bare hands or lighting a fire without matches are among his skills. Nor would he be an easy companion, since by his own account he is a brooder and an insomniac and a craver of solitude. He is the erstwhile resident of a mental institution. He also has complicated feelings about women. But he’d be my perfect companion, still. For one thing, the isle would be full of sounds and sweet airs that give delight, because Burnside is the finest poet writing in Britain today. For another, he’s a brilliant and utterly original thinker, a stranger to received opinion given to flashes of wit and a rare genius of insight. He has read widely and well. He’d notice such interesting things about the stars and the colour of the sea that would-be rescuers would be waved away.


Burnside has written a great many books. There are 14 collections of poetry — among them winners of the T.S. Eliot and Forward prizes — as well as novels, short stories and two previous volumes of memoir. I Put a Spell on You is also autobiographical, although in the loosest sense. What it’s really about is love, bewitching, deranging and dangerous love most of all. Burnside examines the feelings which exist at what he calls the dark end of the fair, a place where glamour slips free of its current usage as a bridesmaid to fame and reverts to a darker past of enchantment. The kind of love which interests him is profoundly unsettling, the sort that makes people do and say things quite outside the scope of their usual lives.

All women should read this, for it offers a dissarmingly honest glimpse into what happens to men when they fancy themselves in love. The news is not good, nor unexpected: they fear commitment and crave novelty, they eye up strangers when they are far from home and — as we have always feared — they pine in the night for the lost girls of their youth. Awake in the small hours they find themselves on the internet, searching for the ones who got away. Burnside stops short of contact, as he says: ‘I have learned much less in my life than I expected to learn, but I do know you shouldn’t write emails to
anyone at three o’clock in the morning.’

If I Put a Spell on You were nothing more, it would be fascinating nevertheless. As it is there are any number of other attractions. He gets lost in the snow within the Arctic circle, considers the blues, the work of Diane Arbus, the charms of youth, the disappointments of ageing, as well as its unexpected gifts. Chapters take the titles of songs and music is much discussed. The passages about his mother are beautiful and very moving. She sings along to popular songs on the radio, bakes, is brave about her difficult marriage. She dies young. Just lately, he writes:

I have come to realise that she knew what a burden her love was, and how much tact and self-restraint she exercised in a vain attempt not to overwhelm me with it.

Throughout this wonderful book Burnside shows himself incapable of a dull sentence or a shop-soiled thought. He is marvellous on adolescence, better than anyone since Morissey’s heyday. He captures the  sense, peculiar to teenagers, that something momentous is about to happen; a feeling which is so at variance with the monotony of the lived experience and yet so vivid. In his case, something did actually occur: a revenge murder in the dull industrial new town of Corby.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £12.99. Tel: 08430 600033

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