By Murdoch Burnett

Welcome to my commonplace book where I will share my poems, thoughts, and discoveries with you.


The commonplace book has its origins in antiquity in the idea of loci communes, or "common places," a place where ideas or arguments could be noted for later use. Such books were filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplace books were used by readers, writers, students, and scholars and each book was unique to its creator's particular interests. 


Entries in Walt Whitman's commonplace book below, which he kept from March 2, 1876 to May 30, 1882, refer to his sending "L of G" (the manuscript for Leaves of Grass) to various individuals.


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A Commonplace 1

Beautiful Birds



Storming in the strait had driven

the seagulls inland.  A small flock wheeled

and screamed above a young couple walking

with a boy perhaps two years old

who pointed and said look

at the beautiful birds.


The mother laughed, though

not unkindly, saying those are dirty birds

but he said again, beautiful, stretching the word out

bee yu tee full so as to help his parents properly

see this momentous thing.


Yes child, the birds etched their maneuvers

into the gray dome of sky and the design

they cut had never been seen before

by a single living soul.


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A Commonplace 2

Ten Crows in a Palm Tree


 I like crows.  They seem to me smart and funny, impish. 


I like it when a whole flock of them gather in a particular tree and hold what seems like a political meeting, a convention. 


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 I try not to get too anthropomorphic about crows,

they are crows, they are crows and do what crows do

but sometimes one does wonder.  During stormy winds

when you see them up in the sky, doesn't it seem like

they are up there just simply fucking around, playing.


I was sitting on the balcony of my apartment years ago

and watched a crow land on the ventillator shaft on the

roof of the building adjacent to my own.  I do not know

if the crow had been there previously but it stood on a metal

disc that spun slowly around and the crow flapped its wings

which sped up the motion of the disc, then would stop

flapping and it would slow down and so on.  For probably

twenty minutes it engaged in this and then flew away.

I watched it.


A short time later three crows flew onto the roof, one

landing on the spinning disc and two beside it.  I have

no way of knowing if the crow on the revolving platform

was the same one as before but it clearly knew how to

flap its wings to speed the thing up and how to slow it down.

It then hopped off and the other two got on, flapped their wings and got it spinning more quickly.  They rode it but

only briefly and then flew away.  The crow left behind

got back on and, in what seemed to me a somewhat

forlorn way,  flapped its wings, sped it up but only

a bit, then gave up the game and flew away.


After some surgery a few years ago I was recovering

in hospital and it became the habit of a few of us

patients to take whatever toast was left over and

throw it up on the roof closest to the courtyard where

we would gather after breakfast.  The crows would

come in and, after some squabbling, would eat the toast

and fly away.  One morning a crow flew in before the others,

picked up a piece of toast and put it in an eavestrough

out of sight and dragged a large leaf over it.  A few

days later we ate all the toast at breakfast and when

the crows came in they looked around a while,

then left.  However one stayed behind and after

the others had left it went to the eavestrough,

pulled the leaf away and ate the piece of toast.


My wife and I live in Bermuda now having moved here a couple of years ago.  As you may expect, many things are different but I am very glad there are crows here, doing what crows do.  Recently I was sitting on a beachside terrace and I heard behind me a the unmistakable sound of a convention of crows and when I turned to look I saw they had chosen a palm tree in which to meet and I was delighted.  


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Crows are smart and funny and neither life or crows do exactly as one might expect.

A Commonplace 3

A Cat Story

No one really likes stories about other people's cats.  I get this and do not expect to pick up any converts here but I do think the cat that wandered into my life last year deserves a passing mention.


My wife and I were returning late from a party at a home in St. Georges on the opposite end of the Island.  It was the birthday party of a defence lawyer with whom my wife occasionally works and her long time companion, a chef who laid on an enormous buffet which she served with pride, deservedly so, it was delicious.  And their trans-gendered roommate who works as a law clerk in the city who can often be seen running, one assumes late, to court in a gait that resembles a young bird learning to fly, lots of fluttering but not much forward momentum.  The then attorney general was also at the party spending most of her time in the corner of the courtyard devoted to gambling, illegal here.  Although I do not gamble, I had a lovely time.


People had recently moved into the little cottage next to our place and as we came up the walk beside it a very odd looking cat came out of the dark and flopped at our feet.  Susan said 'Drop and give me five,' like a drill sargeant and moved past but I, friend to all furry critters, bent over to scratch its belly but when I got close it snarled and tried to bite.  Fine, I thought, and besides it looked like a calico bagpie with its distended stomach like an oxfam poster child, stick-like legs, long skinny neck, and a tiny head with a face looking remarkably like the former prime minister of Canada, Jean Chretien.

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 I left the crabby old thing sprawled on the sidewalk and when I woke the next day I wondered if I had perhaps too much fun at the party so I asked Sue if I had hallucinated the Chretien cat with a body like a set of bagpipes but she assured me it was true.


The home we were living in at that time was built on two levels and when I went downstairs later that day I was surprised to see the odd looking old cat and a much younger, much prettier cat both asleep in the sun on our patio.


I went down to our new neighbour's cottage to see what was up but no one answered my knock.  I did notice a dish containing some dessicated cat food swarming with ants and an empty water bowl.  I put out a bowl of water for the cats on our patio thinking perhaps their owners had gone off for the day and would return later and the cats would go home.


But no one showed up that night and by the next day both Susan and I were slipping our patio guests bits of food and within a few days they had the run of the house and slept with us at night.  There were frequent scenes of uproar when our other neighbour's dog and cat, who were regular visitors, showed up:  dog-cat chases, cat-on-cat fights.  Alliances formed and broken.  In this way several weeks passed.


Sue and I adore both cats and dogs; however, we had decided before we moved to Bermuda to not get either because we had plans for travelling and the nuisance of kennels, etc., was daunting.  Finally, our erstwhile neighbours came home and expressed annoyance at the nephew who was supposed to come by daily to take care of their darling dears.  He had shown up once with a whole passel of really noisy friends, pulled an all night party and straggled out the next day.


Our neighbours thanked us perfunctorily for stepping in and we assumed that was the end of the story but old bagpipe had made alternate plans.  By this time the swollen belly had shrunk and her coat, which had previously looked like she played bass for the Sex Pistols, was glossy and sleek.  The little cat seemed happy enough to go home but often returned for visits that were not nearly as charming as she assumed they were, she was in fact annoyingly fey and self absorded.


Bagpipe, whose name had evolved from this to Baggie to the more dignified Maggie, none of which she responded to in the least, would not leave.  We tried, we really tried.


One couldn't properly describe the next week as tough love because truthfully Maggie is not particularly lovable and we assumed she would get proper care now that the neighbours had returned and we did not want any cat and certainly not one as idiocyncratic as she and, and, and....


So we punted her out and kept the doors and windows closed, no small sacrifice as it was mid-June and already beastly hot.  Susan was on leave from her office at this time because we had found a little cottage right on the ocean and we were packing up in preparation for the move.


For the first few days Maggie did try to move back home but we couldn't help bot notice she was never allowed in the house and that her water dish was seldom full and her food dish was only randomly full and when it was it would immediately be overrun by ants.  If you've ever experienced ants in June in Bermuda you will know what I'm talking about.  Tiny little fuckers but viscious and they swarm over everything in their thousands.  Maggie did try to gut it out but quite quickly she looked bad again and soon enough she was back on our patio, howling to get inside.


Sue and I were conflicted.  Maggie is not cute and cuddly in the slightest but not without charms, not unlike having an oddball uncle who invents things of no possible use to anyone.  Perhaps from all the time she has spent alone, she has a personality uniquely her own.  For instance, she never walks anywhere but runs on tiptoes as if the ground were glowing coals.  She dislikes in the extreme being touched anywhere except her head and although she seems to enjoy this she almost never approaches a person but instead calls out, when Sue or I pass by wherever she happens to be perched, and gives us a Chretien grimace if we ignore her. 


I have had cats whose lives were as orderly and patterned as an army recruit's monotonous drills, but Maggie is on her own time:  she eats whenever, likes drinking all the water from the glass on my nightstand but never touches Susan's, she has taken naps on every flat surface in the house and yard, and spends long hours watching the ocean from the seawall but shows only passing interest in other creatures.  I watched a rat scurry by within feet of her and lizards pass within inches.  I watched her watch a great blue heron standing on a rock on the shore not ten feet in front of her and neither seemed interested much at all.  She mostly shits outside though not always but uses an indoor box to pee in but often misjudges where her butt is and pees on the floor.  She makes us laugh a dozen times a day.

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You will be now know that when Sue and I moved to our little seaside cottage, Maggie came with us.  I mean we couldn't leave her to the indifference of our neighbours, could we?  She couldn't be taken to the humane society, she doesn't project that 'adopt me vibe' at all.  We had no choice, did we?  We knew our neighbours went to work early so the morning we were to move Sue stayed to handle the moving guys and I plopped Maggie into a box with air holes already cut, carried her down to the road, flagged a cab and off we went. 


When we arrived at our new home she inspected each room, watched carefully as I prepared her food and water dish, ate a large breakfast, found a patch of sunlight and fell asleep.  We were home.  I said early in this story that Maggie is unlovable and it's true: willful, frequently bad tempered and costs a small fortune to feed but perhaps it is her unlovability that makes her so lovable but whatever it is, we do love her and in her peculiar way, I am sure she loves us.

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A Commonplace 4

Wild Chickens

It was early December, cold and snowy.  The wind was making that crazy making keening sound and I was thinking I am really not able to face another Canadian winter.  The phone rang and it was Susan calling to ask what I thought about moving to Bermuda.  I looked out the window at the storm and said I thought it was a good idea.

I knew very close to nothing about Bermuda but quite aside from some vague ideas about onions, shorts and triangles I was pretty certain it was warm there and so our adventure began.

Sue was at this time Crown Counsel for the government of Alberta but that day, looking out her office window at the same blizzard I was engulfed in, started trolling the internet for overseas postings. Wanted: Senior Crown Counsel, Government of Bermuda.  Closing date for applications, one day from when she saw it.  Hence the phone call to me.

Perhaps it is a generational thing or maybe just one of my many idiocyncracies but my idea of research is opening books and reading them, a lot of them.  Also, when possible, field research.  However, in recent years my eyesight has failed and reading, a lifelong delight, is now virtually impossible and field work, in this instance, Bermuda, was going to be tough because we could not afford to go there to decide if we would want to live there.  

My feelings about the internet are, well, let's just say complex.  On some very primal level I mistrust it.  I find the notion of, for example, citizen journalism as laughable as citizen surgery.  Just because somebody has an opinion on where to poke me with a scalpel doesn't mean I'm going to sit still for it. Social media is in my estimation profoundly anti-social.  Sitting in your mom's basement tweeting seems to me the portrait of loneliness.

My wife Susan shares none of my luddite bigotries and is an expert and enthusiastic online researcher both in her legal work and in her off hours; she is the designer and editor of this website.  She thinks most of my opinions border on lunacy but likes me anyway.

When she got home after seeing the Bermuda posting the first thing she did was help me find it on a map.  I had thought it was down near the Caribbean and Sue pointed out I was a thousand miles off.  I said I felt the same way about citizen airline pilots as I did about citizen journalists, surgeons et al.  I knew if she did get the job and we moved there it was going to be a professional flying the plane and not me.

Susan did get the job and during the next year while jumping through slightly more than ridiculous, let's say infuriating, immigration hoops we did our best to find out about the place that would be our home.

My reference library which I had carried with me for years was relatively terse on the subject of Bermuda, it being primarily a literary and linguistics library and besides the tiny print of most reference books was quite beyond my crappy eyesight so to Susan's great amusement  I was at the mercy of both her and the internet for all things Bermudian.  It was her great pleasure for the year of waiting to come into the kitchen while I was cooking dinner to ask, "Did I know..." knowing full well I never did know that there were 250 kinds of palm trees in the world and Bermuda had 125 of them. 

Late breaking bulletin:  having a friend on facebook is not the same as having a friend.  In the year it took us to clear Bermuda Immigration we did a pretty good job of learning Bermuda history etc. and felt we were pretty well acquainted with our new home. For instance, we knew the speed limit was 35 kph and one gets the notion of everyone quaintly putting along; one infers from the speed limit, ater a lifetime of bombing around on North American highways, a sedate island pace. Or when we learned that one is never more than a mile from the ocean an image comes to mind of strolling hand in hand to the nearest beach and having a swim.

I get it: if we were to shut down the internet the whole wobbly card house of modern life would come crashing down.  However, I do continually question the faith with which we collectively absorb as gospel this barrage of information.  Yes, the speed limit in Bermuda is 35 kph but no one, no one at all obeys it.  The roads, with very few exceptions are exactly wide enough for two cars to pass but no margin for error. Car drivers tend to be courteous but the hordes of scooter drivers verge on lunacy and kill themselves off at the rate of about five per month.  Stroll to the beach?  Walk up a narrow road steep enough to fall off with traffic barrelling along and oops, no sidewalks.

Please do not misunderstand me.  This is in no way a bitch about Bermuda.  It is a joy and a privilege to be here.  My point is simply that for all the fun Susan and I had looking at Bermuda online we may as well have done research on the history of pancakes.  We love being here but were as unprepared for the reality of this place as we were years ago when Sue initially applied to come here.

After we finally cleared customs and had bolted outside for a cigarette we noticed the balmy air and the palm trees, both expected.  But as we stood there watching people straggle out of and into the airport we saw three chickens - a rooster and two hens - picking their way through the crowd.  As our cab driver drove us to our apartment we saw them everywhere, graveyards, parking lots, school yards.  Wild chickens.  Not once, in all our advance preparation had we come across a reference to them.  Not once.

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