Ivy Ireland reviews amphora by joanne burns


by joanne burns                                                         

Giramondo Publishing, 2011

ISBN 9781920882631

Reviewed by IVY IRELAND





quadrillions of singing atoms: joanne burns’ amphora

joanne burns’ most recent collection, amphora, could almost be a gold-bound book of saints, if it weren’t for the utterly human myths also seeping through its pages.  The collection’s amphorae are filled to brimming with hagiography, angelology and quite a bit of effortless nostalgia.  In fact, burns’ well-loved quirks and smarts flood out of this collection, unable to be contained by the ancient vessels of the title.  Dipping into the overflowing liquids of the ceramic jars, the reader discovers not only the holy waters of poignant scientific enquiry, but also the pink lemonade of PopThink.  There is a great sense of questing after the divine threading throughout these poems, even if it is the divine discovered in such suburban tasks as trimming the unruly Bougainvillea or sucking on lifesavers during rosary.

What strikes me most when reading burns’ work is her tenacious grasp on the humble quotidian, her understanding of the layers beneath the hours and her willingness to unravel the cosmos into quarks and photons without losing her grasp on self and home.  “streamers”, burns’ collection of koans, koannes, give the most intimate examples of this:

weigh the rice before you boil it
how else can you catch up
with yourself

“rung” is, to my thinking, the stand-out poetry sequence of the collection.  The ladder is the subject of this humble, yet unrelenting, enquiry into what goes up and what comes down.  Jacob, Yeats and Miro feature here, of course, but it’s burns’ own nostalgic reflections that contain the best clue to the importance of this everyday tool:

great thorny branches of bouganvillia leap and lurch
towards the sky; junglegreen and purple riot in the air.
i try to prune them. cut them back into some kind of
order no topiary, after my father dies; his ladder is my
ladder now

And yet every lofty, perhaps enlightened buzz-moment, such as:

yeats knew the disloyalty of ladders
the vanishing of rungs in the windy spaces
of old minds; who end up after all those heady
moments back down on hands and knees across
familiar rubbled ground, small hearts picking through
the rags and bones of diminished time;

is craftily snatched away again by simple memories from the human psyche box:

but me. i look for an easier solution. enough of biblical
endurance and ordealism. i climb down the ladder
of memory.

Throughout amphora, burns tackles even the most typical Christian icons, such as saints and angels, with her witty, playful antennae intact.  The opening poem (from the aptly named “angles not angels” section) of the collection, “pitch,” claims:

… i don’t want an angel with huge wings
that rustle, i need someone quiet who likes to dust and shop and
vacuum while i recline and dream up poems and skim through
dictionaries and roget’s there is something about the sight
and thought of those angel wings in most religious art
that makes me shudder

suggesting that it is the typical domestic joys that truly keep the divine (and the poet) afloat in this sea of the extraordinary.  And this book of poems is awash with the extraordinary, simply packed to the brim with mini-insights that eek out of the “pleroma” and into the mind of the sage sensitive enough to capture them and distil them down for the everyday reader.  Even the almost-accidental, scattered and observational poems of the final section of the collection, “this week next week the week after” contain snippets of insight that can only be described as near-mythological or Zen-instructive:

you can’t rely on the sky
to help you sort it out it just hangs
there like a lout sucking on a milk
shake and letting it all happen the burning years

and again:

the poems are running
running away running from
that dread of having to explain
themselves, those lists of
food ingredients they’veread on the back of packets
instant noodles for example;

The blurb on the back of burn’s book states that “from… common things, from familiar words and phrases… burns draws attitudes that define a way of living – gladness, openness, curiosity, acceptance and above all sensual delight.”  Indeed there is a delightful gladness skipping throughout the pages of amphora, even in the midst of the most sardonic observations.  Yet I would add that, even through all of this all-consuming openness, there’s a sense of mocking the openness, as through nothing is sacred because everything is.  Everything is, thus, worthy of the air-knives of burns’ observational skills because the simple holiness contained within these mocked saints and abjured louts will act as their own necessary shields.
amphora is a mini-world of quarks and paradox, dissecting gods and saints alongside the contents of a school lunchbox.  And the variations in theme are almost equivalent to the variations in form.  burns’ trademark prose poems are still to be found here, yet she seems to play a lot with lineation in this collection also, as evident in “raft”:

i dream of the Gnostic pleroma
before the light and dark fissure,
the superstitious rifting: eternal hymn

Throughout amphora, however, nothing remains in stasis.  It is a book of changes: mercurial, honest, undoing itself at every turn.  Even the glorious realisations contained in these stanzas of undulating internal rhythms and rhymes are undone in the next instant:

foremost world of fullness; did the gnostics eat
grated carrot?

Reading through amphora repeatedly (and consider yourself warned: this collection will need second and third reading), I discover that, for me, it’s not the vast, eclectic field burns is plucking her poetics from that packs the most punch (though I must say I am wowed even by the neologisms).  Instead, the true magic lies in the intimate realisations, in the nostalgic, expounded memory-shards that unfold from these poems.  These snippets of insight into the specific journey of one human psyche, such as this image from “relief,” truly sing:

the smell of that old school chalk.  how time slips
away but the smell doesn’t. smell of your teenage
slip singeing after you wrapped it around your
bedlamp late at night on a school day, anxious to
conceal your awakeness from your mother while
you devour ‘the picture of dorian grey’. giving the
gods of reading lust the slip as a burnt offering.

I feel certain that the great gods of reading lust will accept joanne burns’ latest offering with all the zest it deserves.


IVY IRELAND is a part-time cabaret performer, creative writing tutor, harpist, magician’s assistant and Ph.D candidate.  Ivy was awarded the 2007 Australian Young Poet Fellowship, and has had her poems published in various literary magazines and anthologies.  Ivy’s first solo poetry publication came out in 2007 and is entitled Incidental Complications.