“previewing the fears of storm”

Leaf Graffiti, Lucy Burnett, Carcanet, £9.95
reviewed by Russell Jones

Leaf Graffiti is Lucy Burnett’s first collection of poetry, a book which ought to be my cup of chai as it explores urban and natural life through a frequently-scientific lens, which I’m keen on. She’s also designed the book’s cover and I must say that her visual art work, from the cover and a few other pieces I’ve seen, is excellent. So, even before opening up, I was ready to be on-board the Burnett train.

The book is made up of five key sections, although I did find it difficult at times to pin down what made each section distinct, or why one poem featured in one section rather than another. The first of these sections is a series of 17 line poems, each disjointed (graffiti-like) by utilising visual gaps, but with their own cohesion:

a siren bullies down the rush hour street
     setting sail to seagulls in the park
         it’s getting dark although an early wind
is rustling up the newborn leaves      the litter
hastens down the road      while the limegreen copper
beech is previewing the fears of storm

[‘xlii. narcotic‘]

The sequence works best when read as a whole, although is altogether a little too long and may struggle to keep your attention. There are some killer lines dotted throughout (my favourite being “welcome to Scotland we promise not to eat you”) but Burnett’s use of repetition within and between poems, whilst maintaining an almost-incantation feel, could be dismissed as a little bland. That said, she is singing a varied song of peoples and places in which most readers would find something to enjoy.

The book surprised me: the poems I most expected to like (the sciency ones, or those that experimented with form) were not necessarily my favourites. In fact I much preferred the more personal poems, those which hit a toffee hammer against the heart, and prodded me in the eye with a finger rather than with a pipette. Scientific language can be problematic outside of an academic paper, and Burnett’s use of such terminology occasionally alienated me, not least because it’s hard to visualise (“erstwhile photographs void of / haemoglobin chlorophyll” – from ‘xviii. Crevice‘). However there are definitely times when it works. In “Oval”, one of my favourite poems in the collection, the speaker describes the consultation, process and after effects of an opertion:

I watch my breath as bloody streams of oxygen,
drowning life from inside out. Doubts appear
quite clear in neurone etch-a-sketch –
steroid hormones more than just a concept

These medical terms add a certain visceral quality to the events being described, whilst also amplifying the narrator’s doubts as they attempt to mould scientific understanding into a coping mechanism or catharsis. The effect is somewhat reminiscent of Edwin Morgan’s (who gets a mention in Burnett’s poem, “Slabs of Strawberry”) dialogue poem “Gorgo and Beau” in which a healthy cell and a cancerous cell debate their purpose in Morgan’s body, albeit different in approach.

This is a book of places and ideas, often – but not always – satisfying. Its language can be enthralling at times, but mundane at others. There are interesting ideas, some exhilarating turns of phrase, but somehow not quite enough to keep me yearning and coming back for more. I want to take out my scissors and cut it back because the good bits really are good, but they’re a little lost amongst the browning leaves.

Russell Jones

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