I Put a Spell on You, by John Burnside, Jonathan Cape, RRP£16.99, 288 pages
In the middle of winter nights, the poet John Burnside goes outside to cut logs for his stove and asks himself, “Do I belong here?” He means here on this earth, a place once wild and animated by natural rhythms but now disturbed by humans. These midnight excursions allow Burnside to be at his most “creaturely”, to use one of his favourite words – part of the ungovernable mass of nature, “spring tide and chert and blizzard”. To feel like this, to feel truly free, Burnside needs to be alone.
Solitude is Burnside’s preferred condition for thought but his subject – the one at the heart of I Put a Spell on You, his captivating and unsettling work of memoir and essay – is the strangeness of the individual state. How are we supposed to live comfortably in this world; how should we coexist with its other inhabitants, human and animal; how do we belong?
Unsurprisingly, prolonged interest in such questions has taken its toll. In his early twenties, Burnside was admitted to Fulbourn Mental Hospital, just outside Cambridge. He had been suffering from hallucinations and his life, by that point, had become “hopelessly chaotic”. Days were spent drunk or high, sometimes in the company of a wayward, wandering group of friends. There was no parental safety net: his mother had recently died of cancer and he was estranged from his father – the subject of a previous, brilliant memoir, A Lie About My Father (2006).
At Fulbourn, the official diagnosis was paranoid psychosis but Burnside has a better word: “apophenia: the extreme tendency to find elaborate patterns and significance in everything”. It’s a condition he has been managing all his life, and in the way that madness can seem like wisdom in the right context, it is a founding principle of his writing.
The elaborate pattern of this book is established early: when Burnside is still a child, his cousin (and first crush) puts Nina Simone’s version of “I Put a Spell on You” on the record player. He is bewitched. A few years later, a girl in a café in Corby turns around in her chair and sings the song at him. In the mental hospital, he befriends a fellow patient, Cathy, who performs a spontaneous dance in the dining room. Christina, an enduring obsession, is first encountered playing the flute. The book is full of such moments of “glamour”, meant in the old and Scottish sense – “glamourie”, a sort of magical charm. They are episodes of passing wonder, ephemeral and, therefore, memorable, the opposite of the “workaday” life that Burnside abhors.
They all disappear, these women. The cousin marries, the Corby girl is murdered, Cathy commits suicide, Christina goes back to America and is never seen again. But vanishing is part of their appeal. That way they remain other, untamed by the societal structures – money, job, marriage – that weigh so uncomfortably on Burnside. (His wife is mentioned once, almost cruelly irrelevant among these seductive ghosts.)
Burnside would like to disappear too. There are hymns to both the north Norwegian tundra and corporate hotel rooms as places you can go to lose yourself. But he is always drawn back by the power of these heightened moments and by his sense of belonging to the land, “which is to say to gravity, to individual perishability and to the society of other creatures – and because none of these specific instances lasts, everything endures”.
It is a deeply romantic thesis, and in the hands of another writer would seem almost adolescent. But Burnside is a master poet and more importantly, he is self-aware. His control of language and ability to interrogate his instincts prevents him from slipping into self-indulgence. Instead, he has created a work of scalding honesty, inviting the reader to witness his most intimate and troubling thoughts, thoughts that most of us turn away from, preferring to hide behind the comfort of convention. Burnside belongs elsewhere, one of those who prefers, as he puts it, “the dark end of the fair”.
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published