Elizabeth Burns, some appreciations

Wayleave Press has been very pleased to be able to publish Elizabeth’s last two pamphlets, A Scarlet Thread and Clay. Here are some comments on her poetry from other Wayleave poets.

from Jane Routh

Elizabeth would have been in her late thirties when she wrote she was interested in finding ‘an identity for women’s writing in what has been the mainly male domain of Scottish poetry’, specifically ‘women’s ways of seeing and writing’. She wanted to write about ‘the unseen… making the invisible through words – and things.’ This is a life-long theme in her work: she said something very similar as the featured poet in The Compass magazine in the summer of 2015.

The clarity and the ambition of her vision is striking, as is the consistency of her subject matter over the years. How does she achieve what she does?

I’m interested that Elizabeth writes two types of poem: one long and discursive; the other, short and condensed. On the face of it these may sound very different, yet to work, both demand an immaculate command of syntax. Discursive poems, often with long lines and many clauses, need a syntax that never trips or confuses a reader. Condensed poems need a syntax that can support a few words in perfect balance to hold them in a reader’s mind.

Yet it’s the way she plays her syntax within her forms that interests me. (She rarely uses given forms.) I’ll look at a couple of line breaks from her Wayleave pamphlets: ‘The Common Stair’ in The Scarlet Thread is a two-sentence poem; the first sentence extends over three stanzas. What strikes me is the complex use she makes of the first stanza break

I used to climb the same common stair as she did,
when I lived above her old flat in the New Town: our flat

its twin, so I know…

which doesn’t fall where you’d expect, with ‘our flat’ opening the second stanza. ‘Our flat’ is part of the ‘her flat’ stanza, emphasising what they have in common, and giving full force to the same-but-different idea with ‘its twin’ starting a new stanza.

‘Beginnings’ in Clay is one of Elizabeth’s highly condensed poems. It speaks of a woman making a pot and then cooking in it:

look, she can cook in it, meat and plant
and water. She is discovering soup.

Breaking up the list of things which can be cooked, the phrase ‘and water’ has dropped down to the line with soup, which has the effect of making the reader ‘discover’ water as the essential ingredient of soup, just as ‘she is discovering soup’.

All Elizabeth’s poems are finely-tuned like this; as well as the pleasure I take in re-reading her poems, there’s still much I can learn from them.


Grandfather in the Kitchen

from Bill Gilson


The memory of this has been distilled
until all that’s left is whiteness –
the bleached wood of the stool
with the fingerhole to lift it,
the enamel surface of the table,
his cotton vest as he stands by the sink,
face in the mirror bearded with shaving soap,
the warm milk keeping on the stove.

This poem has been one of my favorites since I first read the Lantern Bearers. It embodies some of Elizabeth’s best qualities, as poet and friend: quiet, understated love of the physical world as she saw it and how deeply she could be moved to describe it; and the gentle humorous affection she manifested toward people close to her.


Notes on Elizabeth’s The Lantern Bearers
from Carole Coates

 The title poem of The Lantern Bearers is an important one in the body of Elizabeth’s work as it contains two of the central tropes of her poetry: light and what can be called a loving containment, a holding. These look back to A Gift of Light and forward to Held. In this poem children are carrying light into the winter darkness. The binary opposition of light and dark could be an over-familiar one but Elizabeth avoids cliché by a careful verbal structuring, and a delicate counterpointing of opposites. There is both fragility and vulnerability (“stumbling”, “wavering”, “small voices”, “quivering flames”) and also a strength and resilience in the recurrence of “each November”, (“hats down over ears”, “stout in boots”, “marching”). There is a practical strain of domesticity throughout (“Tom, Maisie, Jess, Amy”, “home-made lanterns”, “buttons, laces, stuck zips,” “treacle cake” and “curled on laps”.) Even the night is humanised as “the darkness which enfolds us all” which suggests a holding and keeping safe as well as the darkness at the end of life. This hint of the numinous is present throughout the poem and is a feature of Elizabeth’s later poetry.

The end of their pilgrimage through the dark is the light of home and the poem finishes with “the story of a lantern bearer” on a journey in the “icy dark” who is guided by one candle to “the place at last / its doorway glowing with light and fire”. Home but more than home. Again that glimpse of transcendence. This is borne out by the central image of the poem which combines the tropes of light and containment – “a quivering flame / carried in the still-translucent lantern / of a new-made body”. Elizabeth has moved effortlessly from the home-made lanterns to the children’s inner light. They are “tiny bright stars” both literally and spiritually. This is not easy to write about and could easily be sentimental but it is accomplished tactfully and with a natural expressive rhythm, slightly more relaxed than the rhythms of the earlier work. It is close to the rhythm of speech and this is augmented by some direct address “Look at them” and conversational turns “And then again / they are ordinary children”.   Children are a subject that Elizabeth returns to regularly in this collection and the next.


from Ron Scowcroft

 The title poem of Elizabeth’s 2010 collection, opens with a seemingly mundane observation: a one year old boy ‘discovering the river’ is dropping stones into the water. What follows is a remarkable exploration of birth, the materiality of existence and our place in world. The river, itself ‘a stony vessel’, contains ‘springwater, meltwater, rainwater’; the details are precise and particular. Other containers are listed – an eggshell, the atmosphere enfolding the planet, the earth that contains us, the womb. For me, the most intriguing image comes in the latter part of the poem ‘everything is like a basket says the basket weaver . . . We are baskets and the makers of baskets’. The shift from the physical to the spiritual is subtle and profound. There is a sense of enfolding – the matrix and chora – and the ‘boy-child’s’ discovery of ‘how things are held’ becomes our discovery at the core of the poem itself. And there is that perfect last line ‘a stone in water, water in a nest of stone’. The poem returns to its beginning, folds in on itself and becomes richer, deeper, more challenging and satisfying – the way the best of poetry should be.

There is a Blakean quality here, ‘a song, holding words, a tune’, innocence, experience, (‘The Clod and the Pebble’ comes to mind) but there is no loss of wonder, no counterbalance from the world weary, no anger or cynicism. Elizabeth’s voice is entirely her own: embracing, open, celebratory – a voice I shall always miss and find again when I read this poem.


Early work
from Mike Barlow

One effect of Elizabeth’s death was to propel me back to her two earlier collections, Ophelia and other poems and The Gift of Light. From the outset (Ophelia was published in 1991 when she was 34) her voice was particular and confident. She already knew what she was doing and what she was about. Her characteristic descriptive power and mastery of syntax runs through everything, sensuous and clear. As also does a focus on and celebration of womens’ sensibilities and creativity. At times in these earlier books she places this in opposition to the prevailing dominance of men: ‘Is Acropolis more marvellous/ than silk embroidered sheets’ (‘Work and Art/ We are Building a Civilization’ – Ophelia and other poems), but the theme continues in its own right throughout her writing.

Although always affirmative in tone, there is in some of these younger poems a preparedness to confront unflinchingly the dark undercurrents and events in human affairs. But this is always in the context of her clear vision, empathy and a drive towards reconciliation. In The Gift of Light, the section Memorials deals with the holocaust and Anne Frank (a subject she returns to in later collections) and elsewhere she writes heartbreakingly of slavery (‘Canaries’) and desert warfare : ‘so many dead in the desert’s bed’.

Throughout all her collections there is, for me, the sense of a poet travelling both in the physical world and her own inner one, digesting and turning experience into memorable art. In her first book she says:

words are such skimpy   scrawly creatures   such
scant indications   of immensities   and depths
‘Untitled Love Poem’

Yet, as I re-read her, immensities and depths are very much what I have a sense of.



Ophelia and Other Poems (Polygon 1991) out of print
The Gift of Light (diehard poetry 1999)
The Lantern Bearers (Shoestring Press 2007)
Held (Polygon 2010)

The Time of Gold (Galdragon Press 2000)
The Alteration (Galdragon Press 2003)
The Blue Flower (Galdragon Press 2005)
The Shortest Days (Galdragon Press 2008)
A Scarlet Thread (Wayleave Press 2014)
Clay (Wayleave Press 2015)

One thought on “Elizabeth Burns, some appreciations

  1. It was Elizabeth’s ‘Untitled Love Poem’ which caught me and held me to her work.
    Doesn’t the thought of ‘glance and touch’ make us stop and think for just a moment ?

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