As I write, it is 12.05, on a bright, cold Saturday. I’m in a cafe near the centre of Dundee, watching people pass by outside – a grey man on his phone; another man – hands deep in his coat pockets, looking baffled at everything (I decide, without any evidence, that he always looks baffled). Almost running, a middle-aged woman laden with carrier bags, is going from one shop to another with a determined, inward gaze – perhaps, ticking off a mental checklist of things to buy. Just now, an elderly woman walked past, slightly bent over, pushing a dark red shopping bag on wheels, very slowly. She looks happy, like she has just remembered the name of a tune she has been humming all week. Walking past her, in the opposite direction, is a young woman wearing a spotless white coat, her back straight and her head held up high as if she is very proud of herself. A small dog trotted along beside her, with the same ultra-confident expression.
I’m thinking about how everyone is in their own bit of time, with their own unique perception of the world. So, in any moment, there’s a lot of unique thinking going on. In Dundee alone, the city where I live, there’s 149,239 individual perceptions every moment. Or, in Scotland, there’s around 5,470,000 perceptions every moment. In Europe: there’s nearly 747 and a half million. And, in the whole world, every moment, there are around 7 and a half billion individual human perceptions every moment. If we take ‘a moment’ to be equal to one second, and then we add to those figures the amount of unique perceptions every hour, or day, or year – the numbers become so vast that we only tend to hear of anything on a similar scale when discussing cosmic distances, or the size of galaxies, or some other cosmological wonder. Or, when discussing the huge number of connections between neurons in our brain. And, if we added all the time in which humanity was around to perceive anything, the number of individual perceptions becomes so large that – well, it’s a bit too big for me to know what to say about it.
Things which are infinite, or just so vast that they appear to be infinite, have long fascinated me. Perhaps, it’s because I don’t know what to think or say about them. And, it’s always struck me as strange that humans, whose lives are so much a part of real or apparent infinities, have such little time available to them – to live, grow, and try to find their own way in the world. Take, for example, the cleverest minds in the world – no sooner have they begun to consider some infinite subject, like the Universe or the human brain, than they have to stop because they are, well, dead. Okay, it’s maybe not quite as fast as that, but you know what I mean. Well, I do anyway. There’s so much to know, and so little time to know it in.
Collecting books is one kind of infinity I know a little about. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve bought a few books and ticked them off the infinite, imaginary checklist in my head. Some, I’ve read before, but I only had tatty or borrowed copies, and I wanted something to keep that didn’t look like the book equivalent of a snotty hankie. So, I got a hardback copy of Colin Wilson’s autobiography ‘Dreaming To Some Purpose’ (2004) and a hardback copy of ‘Wittgenstein – the Duty of Genius’ (1990) by Ray Monk. I’ve read both of them twice already. I put the loyal old paperback versions in a bag for Oxfam.
About a week ago, I couldn’t sleep. Some kind of ghostly anxiety was haunting me. Not an actual ghost going Woooo, or rattling chains and cackling. Do ghosts cackle, or is that just a witchy thing? Anyway, I wasn’t sure of the cause and I didn’t want to find out, but I thought – I’ll go and sit in my library for a while, and, to use the technical term: I would faff about reading random things until I got so tired I could get back to sleep. So, I picked up one book after another but placed each one back on its shelf, unread. I was too tired to read, although I wasn’t tired enough to sleep. And then, on the top shelf of a large bookcase that holds my poetry books, I noticed three books of poems by John Burnside. I started to read them.
John Burnside is a Fife magician of words. Reading his poems is like taking a walk in the countryside and noticing autumn as if you have never seen it before, and you suddenly smell centuries of forests, and just when you become accustomed to that kind of magic, you are guided through secret passages of word- sounds and word- meanings, into a haunted, grey land, where pure terror hides in the mist. Then, in the next poem and the next, Burnside helps you to escape from that ‘now’ to another ‘now’ -each one as real and strange as the one before. Every ordinary object and event can become a door to wonder.
Or, at least, those are some of the thoughts sparked by reading Burnside’s poems, at 4 am. There was some lateral thinking going on. Perhaps my own dreams were getting mixed up with the poems. Then, I looked Burnside up online. I wanted to stick some fact scraps about him into the insomniac scrapbook of my mind. He was born in 1955 in Dunfermline; so, he is 64 years old. He has been a Writer in Residence at Dundee University (years after I graduated) and a Writer in Residence at the British Library; a Professor at St Andrews University, a novelist, and a prolific poet – receiving a lot of critical acclaim and top awards. His books-output includes 14 poetry collections (excluding Selected Poems (2006); and inclusion in one of the Penguin Modern Poets series (1996), with Robert Crawford and Kathleen Jamieson).
After I read from the Burnside collections I own, I decided to read through all of his poetry books, in the order they came out. I began that night to order as many of Burnside’s books as I could find. I ended up with 10 of the 14 collections, and I’ll get the other four soon. They stretch from 1988 to 2017. The first one ‘The Hoop’ (1988) has a snapshot of Burnside on the back cover: it looks like it was taken in a passport photo booth, and he looks like a mod wondering if someone has just stolen his scooter. In later photographs, he looks bulkier, more like a teacher, but still a bit suspicious. And, in his younger or older images, there’s one other constant: he does not look as if he would hold the magical power which Ted Hughes referred to in great poets as being like a shaman, a holy man, who could conjure up spirits through words. Maybe he looks different in real life but I hope not. Magical people should look a bit ordinary. It’s more magical that way.
I bought other books too, but I’ll talk about them some other time. I eventually went back to sleep.