By Hearting First Footnote on Zoomorphism by John Burnside

Nicholson Baker’s The Fermata is a comic novel about a man who has the power to stop time. Or rather: to halt the moment-to-moment ongoingness of people and events, an entity-fixing Pause button, leaving him unaffected, able to wander around in the now suspended animation of his life.

Baker’s novel came to mind recently as a kind of esprit de l’escalier thought after hearing J. recite from memory “First Footnote on Zoomorphism“.

The prosaic facts are these: J. and I are drinking Guinness. J. recites Burnside’s poem which they have decided to learn by heart. I find the poem moving, exciting, a concoction of “raw” and exquisitely “cooked”, as perfect as only a poem can be. I do not say this at the time, but communicate (as in bird vocalization?) through approving exclamations such as “bloody hell” or “wow”.

What I would like to do though is this.

Stop time.

Open J’s turquoise-covered diary where they have been keeping the Burnside poem, torn out of their London Review of Books

Read it a couple of times.

Then, through a world turned stock-still, go for a walk. Past Daunt Books, onto Hampstead Heath, moving in the direction of Parliament Hill, ponds on either side of me, the poem nestling in my hand as I begin to commit it to memory.

A few hours later I would return to our table at The Magdala, replace the poem in her blue notebook,  maybe even pausing in my own memorising-momentum to jot down some questions bittern-booming in my head.

And then

…triggering time’s flow once more, vocalising these questions J-wards:

  1.  What curtails our speaking about the heart?
  2.  Why “grease”, why “echo”, in relation to our emotional life (we’re not talking biological cogs and wheels here, or are we)?
  3. Do you really think “any feathered thing will do”?
  4. If not, if one “feathered thing” is more interesting, more love-able, more exciting than another (which is obviously what I think), what are our criteria for this interest, love, excitment? How comfortable do we feel about these too-little spoken about impulses?
  5. Less-appealing to whom? To what extent do we feel our less-appealingness as a burden,  or something shameful?
  6. What are our own, self-produced coloured lithographs (I think I know mine, do I?); what role do they play in our lives?
  7. Does “on the point” suggest that the transcendence we seek is out of reach, perpetually about to happen to someone else, somewhere else? Why not us?
  8. Is the poet mocking, mourning, or luxuriating in the notion that the imagination gives us access to an emotional intensity we might not attain in the non-textual here and now?
  9. If each heart is a unique species in itself, where to find one’s intraspecifc cohorts, co-hearts?
  10. Whose is the descant in the dark: the reader, the poet’s? (It is not the bittern’s, the bittern booms brassy, burpy, bass-like, a David Byrne/St. Vincent track.)
  11. Does the descant-to-disappearance sadden you (it does me)? Why?
  12. Why does the human imagination allow for these shapeshifting fantasies of zoomorphism? What happens when we project interspecifically/interpersonally? To what purpose?

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