“Jo Burns’s debut pamphlet, Circling for Gods, skirts across the seas of Northern Ireland to Asia, South America to Africa, in search of a way to bundle the mind-bending wonder of religious belief into words. “the only real belief / is benevolence”, she eventually concedes in ‘Green Milk’, but there’s a whole lot of musing that comes before this conclusion.
Burns’ poetry strives to pin down the enigmatic forces that elude human understanding; framed with a focus on religion, but ultimately coming back full circle to dissect the most baffling mystery of all: the creation of life. These dynamics are demonstrated in ‘Conception’, and with an image that perfectly encapsulates the attention to detail and accuracy of her approach:
I lie, this night, pregnant, propped to dream, searching for some tool, to pull this news through needle eye, to sew, to stitch the world down to what I know.
The speaker then catches sight of her baby’s face for the first time in ‘Cosmology’, a physics-inspired poem that sews chaos into the childbirth theme. The encounter is a catalyst for emotions so powerful that it thrusts her world quite literally askew. As magnetic fields collapse with catastrophic force, a failing that flattens the Himalayan mountains, shifts and shoves the tectonic plates, flings birds off their flight path and fiddles with the equator’s co-ordinates, the language commendably holds its ground. The spectacular chaos is carried by a measured control over sentence length and structure, snipped short to snag tightly in the memory. “Dizzy with promises, I held him. Then the earth stopped.// Inertia forces threw me east. Magnetic fields collapsed, the Himalayas flattened.” The poet unpacks this metaphor to reflect on the dynamics of human relations and with inch-perfect aptness of application: “I started spinning in reverse […] everything reverted from what I claimed to know.”
Elsewhere, Burns taps into the mysteries of mythology, like the Celtic Raven Goddess in ‘The Word RabenMutter’, even the mysteries of foreign languages in ‘Untranslatables’. The world-upturning dimension to migration finds its way in too, as in ‘Migration of the hummingbird’, where birds squint through smog in a metaphor of disorientation. This makes the pamphlet even more relevant, a handbook for dealing with modern day disorder.”
written by Jade Cuttle. Appeared in Magma.