Jim Burns “let’s do it” – The Black Light Engine Room Press


It is always a pleasure to read new/newly collected poems from Jim Burns. This chapbook “let’s do it” by The Black Light Engine Room Press is a limited/first print edition of 50 copies. I’m delighted to have one.

The opening title poem is a cute suggestive piece about grabbing that moment within the context of growing older and doing so in an increasingly uncertain world. For me, its wry playfulness is typical of Jim Burns’ poetry, so we read on and by doing so are doing it to find our pleasures too in the world he observes.

So there is that familiar droll and therefore gentle critique of the actors who cannot stop acting in The Union Theatre and café, and the slightly more caustic humour in reflecting on an old school acquaintance [or really someone he knew at school] in Billy Bagwell.

Quite often Burns’ observations are just that – the simple honesty of seeing and reminiscing, as in Mill Walls where he explains what I have just suggested,

…..I’m not telling
you this to make my childhood
seem harsh or drab or anything
other than what it is

A Close Family is a comic and telling account of eavesdropping on a train, and All Experiences Are Useful is a rueful conclusion on an observation of his boyhood family life.

What I also like is the absence of the judgemental. There is enough of that to go around, me contributing my fair share of irrelevance. Therefore in the poem The Optimist we can make up our own mind about the glass half full mentality of our observed protagonist at the pub, but for Burns the man simply gets a free pint from him.

An Ideal Audience presents a simple yet convincing rationale for the reason to ‘keep on writing poems’; Jackson Pollock presents an abstract conversation between the poet and painter, and there is gentle humour and warmth in the two poems The Old Poet Speaks.

This is a sweet and accessible collection, as one would expect knowing Burns’ work. You read each poem quickly and stop and pause and know there is something quite meaningful expressed with ease. And I don’t mean a deceptive ease. I mean the candour devoid of complexity or affectation of art.

I’ll quote one very brief poem illustrative of Burns’ humour and honesty, this expressing the observational focus of the whole with that hint of more,

On Target

As parting shots go,
it wasn’t too bad.
“I’m tired of being in
your poems,” she said.

Email theblacklightenginedriver@hotmail.co.uk for details to purchase: £5 + £2 p&p

Top Fifty 24: Chris Smither – I’m A Stranger Too/Don’t It Drag On, 1971 and ’72

[Originally posted August 2011]


I’m sure I’ve said and done this before, but I’m going to cheat because I can. This top fifty selection is a two-fer of Chris Smither’s debut and second albums, brought out respectively in 1970 and 1971. They are both excellent – some of the finest songwriting and performance of the time and genre. I genuinely could not choose between them so this combo gets me out of a fix I don’t have to suffer.

Of interest too, I hope, is that I have only discovered Chris Smither in very recent years. If I had heard and possessed these albums in the early 70s I know they would be as precious as my John Martyn albums/music of the time. Smither is a brilliant guitarist, and his more recent work is predominantly blues based. These early albums are mainly folk songs, with beautiful ballads. Smither’s voice today is a distinctive baritone; in the early 70s it was a higher register with an emotive, natural warble that is much more gentle and appropriate to the folk melodies.

Of course I have made a compilation of the ballads from both albums that I particularly like. What is again interesting is that some of these melodies are so achingly plaintive in their beauty, musically and lyrically, that they have an impact on me now that I would normally only get from those songs that I have grown up and lived with for years. That is their genuine power. A track like Devil Got Your Woman from I’m A Stranger Too is a good example. This is followed on that album by Homunculus which is even more of a lament, and has echoes of Bert Jansch’s early work for a reference point. Other songs in this gentler vein are A Short Song For Susan, Neil Young’s I Am A Child, Love You Like A Man, Skip James’ Look Down The Road, and the gorgeous Time To Go Home.

The second album offers up similar gems: Lonesome Georgia Brown with slide guitar; the simple acoustic and vocal of I’ve Got Mine; the brilliant blues of Another Way To Find You; a piano addition in Jagger/Richards’ No Expectations; title track Don’t It Drag On with more piano and bass; the exquisite and sad Every Mother’s Son [lyric at end], and the final track I Feel The Same. Background vocalists on this album include Bonnie Raitt and Maria Muldaur.

There are more bluesy/rock tracks [I have focused on my softer, ‘pretty’ favourites here]. From Don’t It Drag On there are two good representatives of this other offering to mention, both with the Smither vocal sounding like Michael Chapman from Family, and a more dynamic example of the warble I have already mentioned: Bob Dylan’s Down In The Flood, and the classic Willie McTell Statesboro Blues. There are self-penned examples too on both albums.

As I have typed this I have listened to both albums and it has been wonderful. Again, as I’ve said before, I have the time and this is why I do what I do here.

Every Mother’s Son

I speak to you. I think you’ll
Understand. You know you’ve
Made your son Joseph
A dangerous man.
He’s gone to town, he’s bought himself a gun.
This could happen to every mother’s son.

I spoke to Joseph.
His time has come.
“Vengeance is mine,” he said.
“Come join the fun.”
He looked more like a Judas on the run.
This could happen to every mother’s son.

Since I spoke to Joseph he’s
Gone into town. He killed
Six strong men ‘fore they
Shot him down.
I hate to think it’s only just begun.
This could happen to every mother’s son.

Something to tell you I
Think you should know.
You think too fast and you
Love too slow, you know.
You needn’t feel you’re the only one.
This could happen to every mother’s son.

Found in Rees-Mogg


Perfectly, the rights
of the individual
allow you to
crush individuals

because the state
believe that I
am to be protected
by the government

and I do not believe
that a nation in the
interests of an individual
is built on a collective –

this is socialism
more convenient
for valuable and
important things

[found in Rees-Mogg speech today to ‘Open Europe’ think tank]

Matthew Sweeney’s Storytelling


It was sad to read yesterday others commenting on the news that poet Matthew Sweeney is suffering from motor neuron disease, as reported in Monday’s Irish Examiner.

I don’t know him personally and/or had the pleasure of working with him as some of those commentators have –  expressing their love and respect for Sweeney and his writing – but I have enjoyed immensely the poetry of his I have read and additionally recall with great fondness using his storytelling poems with students.

I offered these up from Sweeney’s four collections Cacti, The Bridal Suite, A Smell of Fish and Sanctuary where students could select and use his poems as stimulus for their A level Text Transformation writing projects. The surreal and open-ended narratives of so many of his poems offered students considerable creative opportunities to, firstly, be stimulated by the magic of their inventiveness, and secondly, use this as prompts for their own writing – taking his ideas to their own imaginative places.

I was prompted to share this reflection because of the following and concluding Q and A from the IE report:

What will be your legacy?

Mostly what awaits the poet is posthumous oblivion. Maybe there will be a young man in Hamburg, or Munich, or possibly Vienna, for whom my German translations will be for a while important — and might just contribute to him becoming a German language poet with Irish leanings.

Certainly one thing that’s pleased me in recent years was a suggestion in a review of my last book that I may be responsible for some younger poets venturing into the weird, more surreal zone. That would be something.

It is a self-effacing, amusing and touching response from Sweeney, and I know from experience he definitely did impact positively and inspirationally on younger writers because I will never forget their engagement with his writing and ideas and how this fuelled their own creativities.