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Envoi review, issue 152 February 2009 by Will Daunt

Norman Buller’s Sleeping with Icons is an important and unusual book by an author with the remarkable distinction of being an influence on Thom Gunn in the first, youthful, phase of his writing. Buller’s first two pamphlets were published forty years apart, the latter in 2005. Between the two Buller, wrote little but lived and worked alongside familiar Belfast authors such as Heaney and Mahon. So Sleeping with Icons is a little late for a first collection, but the wait’s been worthwhile. It resonates with the depth of a calm voice, at one with its curious genesis.

Sensibly, Buller has divided his work into three sections, with the central ‘Persons, Places, Dreams’ the self-contained heart of the writer’s purpose. The tone for the first thirteen poems is set in ‘The Kiss’ which captures: Rodin’s/ opulent flexed muscle as the author stretches likewise to check that each part of his creative physique is in good writing order.

An ambitious piece like ‘Broken Kings’ demonstrates a talent more than fit for purpose. These Magi are world-wearied and dysfunctional. Balthasar, for example: was caught with his hand in the till and so sent wandering/ his bribe for freedom giving cause for wonder. Journey’s end prompts a more universal need: Child, take our greed, our lasting sorrow. It’s an exploration Buller continues elsewhere.

There’s a recurrent ambivalence about the faith tradition exemplified by the title poem and its pleasant, rather than evocative, portraits: Under an absolute/ Christ on his throne / they lie beatified;/painter unknown.

In the core of the book, Buller’s eye roves further, deeper. Two moving poems about his parents are typically simple in form and piercing in impact. Of his long-dead father: You quit your garden/ barely into spring,/ your seed untended/ after just five winters.

There’s a similar sparse intensity in ‘The Other, its subject deliberately elusive, like an almost-forgotten lover: I am aware/ of you, out there,/ somewhere…..// locked in/ a cell of night/ craving for light. As elsewhere, the craft of the rhyme is in its apparent artlessness.

There are several poems of place, each drawing a finely-wound thread of images through our imaginations. The village of Frankenheim, once a tantalizing prospect of East Germany, inevitably disappoints when the Curtain’s gone: Unremarkable lights are coming on/ in ordinary windows./ Plain, unromantic houses/ grey in the dusk. The surprise of the mundane is neatly captured.

Buller moves naturally into a more narrative style in ‘Eyemouth’, with half of the poem recreating the sense of alienation in youth: The old town had/ a tangle of narrow alleyways of questionable/ mien; down each he’d sensed a Bill Sykes footpad/ lurking. Returning, bereaved, the narrator is chilled by the trim, scrubbed anonymity of the modernized place, its emptiness reflecting his loss: white caravans lay scattered/ like a gull’s shattered wing across the hills.

The book concludes with a number of powerful translations and ‘variations’ of other (mainly European) writers including Baudelaire, Trakl, Petrarch and Lorca. A more formal style comes to Buller with an easy elegance. Its mature melancholy creates a particular voice, as in ‘De Profundis’: Black rain falls on the stubble-field/ where a gaunt tree stands alone./ Wind stirring through vacant huts/ brings the evening’s sorrowful moan.

‘Conscience at Midnight’ invents a phrase to balance the range of the poetry’s moods: we priests of language should give praise/ to rapture of sad themes. Rapture and sadness – two of the many human conditions captured by this resurgent, authoritative writer. Translating and adapting others’ work appeals to a minority, perhaps because of the fear of ‘losing the self’ somewhere along the way, or, simply not being up to the task.

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