Dom Bury, Rite of Passage – review

Dom Bury’s Rite of Passage is an intense, visionary work, suffused by images of apocalypse. It presents the environmental crisis as not merely stupidly self-destructive but sinful, a perverse violation of the sacredness of earth.

The book is structured around the Roman Catholic mass for the dead and the burial rite that follows it. It’s divided into four sections, ‘Kyrie’, ‘Dies Irae’, ‘Libera Me’ and ‘In Paradism’ (sic) preceded by an introductory poem, ‘What My Body Showed Me’, and succeeded by ‘Morning’. The title’s “passage” is a movement through imminent catastrophe to a hoped-for new life in healthy relation to the earth. I found myself thinking how intense the sense of release in those final poems might be, in a ritualistic, stage-lit live performance accompanied by music that echoed one of the settings of the mass. In such a performance, the whole cumulative weight of the earlier sections would be throbbing within one as one reached the ending.

On the page, it takes time and concentration to develop such a living sense of the dynamics of the whole, and of course it can’t be represented in quotation, so I’ll concentrate on the different kinds of brilliance Bury shows in individual poems.

At the most basic level, there’s the vividness of his phrasing. A few lines into the first poem, the speaker describes standing in a wood

to absorb one season giving

birth to another     the huge trees
stripping their own bones clean.

I find the expression there breathtaking. Putting the line and stanza break after “giving” rather than after “season” throws vivifying emphasis on the metaphor of birth, defying the usual association of late autumn with subsidence into the deadness of winter, just as “clean” makes us see the bareness of winter trees as a braced, athletic state rather than one of sickness and loss.

What follows is a surprising twist, an example of Bury’s power as narrator, creating suspense and narrative momentum while making every new step seem packed with fresh significance. As in a ghost story, the speaker feels he’s no longer alone:

something else

was moving     then stopping
then locking its breath against sound

What can it be? He listens intently, then feels his own body leaving him. He follows it “unwillingly” – how vividly that one word draws us into the situation, making us feel the conflicting fear, bewilderment and compulsion experienced by the speaker –

until in a clearing up ahead I could see

something      waiting
silent as the snow

as if it had been there all along –

Line end pauses and spaces within lines both convey the speaker’s breathless agitation and heighten narrative suspense. What he sees turns out to be his body, not as it was but as he will have to wear it “if all that can still be saved     is lost” (my italics).

Many other poems tell stories. Often electrifyingly strange, evoking both horror films and primitive folk tale, they grip the imagination, stretching it, sometimes bewildering it, but always suggesting the perversity and self-destructiveness of our abuse of the planet. In the cannibalistic ‘Foie Gras’, children are silently stolen by some kind of monstrous bird woman. She chains them in a cattle shed and force-feeds them to bloat their livers. When she kills them she sells their livers and flesh to their own parents to eat. In ‘Why I Have Chosen Not to Have Children’, the speaker finds each hen in the hen-house a cinder and her unhatched eggs scalding hot, while cattle give birth to calves as huge black coals that crumble to ash. A repeated motif of the dying, loss or absence of children suggests a vision of environmental catastrophe as a failure in love for the earth and implicitly – I’d say – for our own species. Going back to that first poem, the frightening thing that confronts the speaker – his own future body – is “a human that had been taught // nothing of love”. In ‘Extinction’, Bury imagines ‘some grace / in our unravelling’: that our extinction might be the planet’s salvation. However, he suggests that even now love just might win, if imminent catastrophe can make us “understand how each cut into the earth / is a cut into our own soft skin”, or if the breaking apart of the world can “break us open / to the subtle miracle of living”, and make us “finally remember / the deep dark of the earth alive in us again”.

Those last quotations are from in ‘In Paradism’, the section whose title alludes to the chant as a body is taken out of church for burial. In that context the subsequent ‘Morning’ must evoke the idea of the resurrection, and seems to imagine a new relation to earth when we wake from our destructive consumerist fantasy. But it can also stand alone as the lyrical evocation of a cleansed vision of life and the earth as one might have it now, a moment of visionary radiance and simplicity in which one feels eternity in the instant and God in everything, in which one is so united to the world that the syntax appropriately makes both “the cool air / lifting out from the valley” and the mind of the speaker

mix with the blue sky above
filled with nothing and every
invisible moving thing


Rite of Passage by Dom Bury.  Bloodaxe Books. 80pp.; £10.99.

I would like to thank Danielle Hope, the editor of Acumen, for permission to post this review, which appeared in Acumen 101

One Response to “Dom Bury, Rite of Passage – review”

  1. Theresa Sowerby said:

    Dec 24, 21 at 8:13 am

    So glad you are promoting this collection, Edmund. I reviewed it for Orbis and found it disturbing and powerful. Wishing you and your family a happy and peaceful Christmas.

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