Poems

Published by Listowel Writers’ Week. Winner of the 2020 Listal Poetry Prize. Shortlisted for the An Post Irish Poem of the Year 2020.

Terminarch

 

For Fatu, Kenya, 2018

Girl, you’re the last combination of chromosomes

and randomly smolt genes of your species.

You wear survival on your hide like an armour

 

of melted-down spearheads and machetes.

You vocalize the thunderous gutterals

of your indigenous tongue into seasons of hollow,

 

and are last to walk the way of the pilgrims

and mates to the familial watering holes.

Your brothers crossed the Ngorongoro cradle

 

to the other side to join the djinn. Their fathers,

and fathers before them, travelled past

the cauldron caldera you would call home,

 

if free to. Their pride graces teak tresors

as polished handles of yemenese daggers,

or ground to myth in Chinese powders.

 

But your grandfather,  as rare as rhodium

in his life, cleared the walls of hunting lodges,

reverse-engineering evolution

 

to a crash of poems. Like you, he was a birth

of magma from the fertile crater core.

Now receeding like lava back to the spirits,

 

he is a zip of unravelling DNA helix

and nucleotides you share, but have no use for.

As you search through cracks of crust and mantle

 

for the rest of your days, some holy place

to call your own, you lumber on a petered-out trail

of seed and sequence, relic and reason,

 

red dust. You are from yet also filled with volcano

and desire for something with no name, no outlet.

When the earth swallowed his last death trumpet,

 

deep underground an ancient herd stampeded.

Hearing it, he lowered his bullish head to charge

the rim. He knew he was storming time

 

to surrender to the last century of man.

You are so many things at once, a matriarch

without fold, an endling of magical code,

 

revered by the old ones, in lineage and bone.

And the horizon is a blood sky spilling towards

you. Fatu, you’re extinct despite still living

 

and we mourn the last ever male of your kind,

the northern white rhino, named Sudan,

who leaves you, granddaughter, behind him.

Irish Writers Festival McClure Poetry Prize

Green Milk

There are days I go there in my head. When the babble 

and sky of lowlands fail me and I climb the tumble

 

of six thousand meters, breathless, in the Himalayas.

I  leave the clangs of  Yak bells behind me, shedding 

 

tree lines, unlacing ravines of plunge.

I peel of millimeter by millimeter of old belief.

 

I lean into mountains which pull me to them 

while cascades rob rock of mineral silt

 

and as granite and gravity remain indifferent,

I dream of that green milk churning.

 

I climb past prayerwheels of sun-muted pastel

as veins fill with the release of water,

 

torrents of cloudy rage over, under Khumbu bones. 

Oxygen slides into memory. Blood thickens,

 

coursing. I come alive, drunk on wind-chill,

as this height. The seize of snow, china white,

 

smacks at seven thousand (where Boeings fly)

turns bones to glass, and heads to God, inclined.

 

In this place, the dying zone, the only real belief

is benevolance. Amen and apnoea are both submission.

 

Sagamartha is addiction. I’ve heard of men blinded,

hypnotized, torn between peak and the safe plod home.

 

Mesmerised by the crack of glaciers, and the need

to finally look down. Mountaineers, Sherpas alike

 

are marked on the moraine by stones and flags.

In scree above the Gura red Rhodedendrons, I pause.

 

Reverence, for the first time in my life, feels right.

Those who’ve never been here call it madness

 

but the hymns bursting streams are kaleidoscopic.

And if there must be religion, then let this be it.

REVIEW

“White Horses draws on a heritage of ethics and strong-mindedness that extends worldwide, through Germany and Europe to post-colonial Africa and the Himalayas, from the patriarchal and biblical past to a future where reason and the heart lie down together”.  Harry Clifton

“To read Jo Burns’ poems, is to feel exhilarated and enthralled.  She makes bold, unexpected leaps with language, able to mine history and place with authentic poignancy.  This collection will move you, and excite too, as Burns explores the spectacular and the strange, gifting us with vivid poems to be savoured. Poetry has a new, accomplished and necessary voice”.   Rebecca Goss