Kierkegaard's Cupboard: Marianne Burton, Seren

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Marianne Burton trained as a lawyer and worked in the City. Her first book, She Inserts the Key was nominated for the Forward prize for best first collection. Kierkegaard’s Cupboard, the culmination of several years of research into the life and work of the Danish philosopher, theologian and religious author, Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-1855), is the title of her second collection.  The “cupboard” of the title is a reference to the wooden palisander cabinet in which Kierkegaard kept the letters and reminiscences of Regine Olsen, whom he met and fell in love with when she was a young woman. Even though he was engaged to her, he refused to marry her but remained obsessed with her for the rest of his relatively short life.

Despite her extensive research, Burton modestly claims that her book is not a work of scholarship or translation. Instead, she refers to it as “a personal interpretation in the same way that jazz interpretations pay homage to standards”. In the author’s note she writes: “I hope readers will go on to read proper books about him. This is a book of poetry and as such is not at all proper.”

The poems are presented in six parts which follow in chronological order and correspond to the different phases of Kierkegaard’s life: Childhood; Regine; The Writings; After The Corsair; The Moment, and Death. The chronology is a perfect match to the opening quotation: It is perfectly true, as the philosophers say, that life can only be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards. (Søren Aabye Kierkegaard – Journal 1843).

Every poem in the book, including the opening poem ‘How To Write A Preface’ is written as a sonnet. Far from setting herself any formal constraints,  Burton ingeniously succeeds in presenting us with a huge variety of layouts in terms of stanza breaks and line length (in one case there is just one word in the opening line) while at the same time ensuring that every poem takes up the requisite 14 lines. With few exceptions, the title of each poem is taken from the first line and each of the six sections is preceded by a short commentary or word of explanation referring to each particular phase in Kierkegaard’s life so that the reader does not have to refer to footnotes.

Although he is known chiefly as a philosopher and theologian, Kierkegaard was also a poet. Commenting on this, Burton states that “some poems are more Kierkegaard’s than mine and vice versa”.  While several of the poems in this collection read more like prose, the nature of the precise phrasing more than makes up for the absence of metaphor. Even in the more lyrical pieces, where the vocabulary is not particularly adventurous, Burton still holds our attention:

 

    Something wonderful happened yesterday.

     I left for heaven. The old gods summoned me.

     Mercury said, ‘Various gifts we have to give away:

     power, long life, the loveliest women, beauty.

     Choose – but only one.’

 

The emphasis here, as in most of the poems in this collection, is on the storyline. Burton has the knack of distilling a whole story into 14 lines. She uses poetic description sparingly and yet there is still something hypnotic about her technique that draws us in. Take, for example, the opening stanza of this poem which is described as being a letter Kierkegaard wrote to his brother’s wife who suffered poor health:

 

     Above all, Jette, do not forget to walk.

     I have walked myself into all my best thoughts

     and I know no thought so burdensome

     that I cannot walk away from it.

     Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being

     and away from illness.

     I promise, it is possible.

 

The repetition of “walk” and “thought” is immediately striking. Walking is a way of thinking yourself into a positive state of mind. In another poem, ‘Not A Day Without A Line’ Burton writes:

 

     not a day without walking

     for to forget to walk is to forget one has a body

 

Her best poems are the quiet, reflective ones that have beautiful accomplished endings. In the final section of the book she writes:

 

     How quiet dying is. Like the greatest hazard

     of all, losing the self, which often happens quietly

     in the world, as if it were nothing…

 

Burton has researched her subject matter well and has skilfully managed to convert biography into poetry. In so doing, she has given us a glimpse into the life of Kierkegaard, including his yearning for Regine, his rant against journalists, his approach to Christianity and the church, which is both tantalising and revealing and makes us hungry for more.

 


Marianne Burton, Kierkegaard’s Cupboard, Seren, £9.99

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