Monday, 13 October 2014

An Aviary of Small Birds - Review

Birds, with their other-wordly, sometimes trangressive freedoms and modes of living are easily-reachable metaphorical rungs. I have turned to birds, often, in poems to express something of the ineffable, without casting wider for alternatives. Why not a greenfly, or glove, or grey squirrel?

Partly because birds and their aerial abilities are inherently alien, and beyond us, (and therefore romantic) much is projected upon them despite their vast intra-species differences. They soar and strut, loaded with symbol, more so than many other creatures - whether fish, fox or bees - poster insects for an environment in peril.
Long may we marvel at avian bounty. But for me, birds have to earn their place in poems, in an unexpected way, or their true startling-ness is overlooked.


Karen McCarthy Woolf's new collection, An Aviary of Small Birds, (Carcanet/Oxford Poets) is thrumming with wings. Birds are 'swift and deft', 'weightless'; a hawk's feet are 'surprisingly municipal/in colour, like double yellow lines' and a mallard is 'radiant'.
But nature in this book is more than pastoral and more than a vehicle for the 'other'.

An Aviary of Small Birds is, foremost, an elegy to a newborn son, Otto. There is an unflinching poem about a mare 'Of Roadkill and Other Corpses' that is, simply, heartbreaking in its direct truth. And there are butterflies, with their gothic Victoriana undertow, '...their silk a thread of fear/that runs from throat to clitoris...'
Creatures weave through the pages so lightly and delicately their presence is almost, not-quite there, and is testament to McCarthy Woolf's considerable skill in evoking an often deeply moving presence-in-absence. 

Some of the poems may be compared to conjuring tricks: the poems are so beautifully crafted that the white-gloved author is nowhere to be seen, only the doves fluttering over the stage.
Take the opening poem, The Undertaker, which repays many re-readings with its intimations of deep grief and the interaction between the subconscious and the visible surface - 

The Undertaker

wears white gloves
and his left hand waves 
on the crowd, moves

slowly as if under
the surface where water
swims sinuous as an elver

that darts between clouds
of ink in violet reeds
weightless as birds.

Other poems take on the unforgiving eye of a camera, staring destruction in the eye, trapped or imperilled.
Perhaps paradoxically from a book which builds from a state of loss, much is made animate, most strikingly 'The Wish'  - an unquantified obsession that invades, mutates, 'industrial/in its persistence' yet 'absolutely specific'. As well as nightmarish scenarios, in delivery rooms and often in transition, there is frequently a sweetness of tone and address that I find moving in its direct tenderness.

'There is a God
              and he dwells in the perfect
horse dung on the bridle path."

(The Weather in the Womb)

Her pared and measured language builds poems that often burst into vivid emotional resolution, much like a flock of birds lifting away.  
My favourite poem is Wing, with its intimations of corporeal loss and belonging and beautiful last two lines that to quote in isolation would be to cheapen. Here is the first stanza anyway -

We find you, dear Wing,
in the half-dark
on the way back from the piglets,
your knuckle of raw bone
and streak of claw-white quills
torn from the socket.

McCarthy Woolf is a poet attuned to the dark pulse of life beneath the gaudy day-to-day show. The precision and slant of her eye and ear lifts her work into surprising new territories. It is also replete with integrity, of hard-won, lived experience. Sometimes painful to read, she is not afraid to bring emotion so close to the glass you can hear wings, and limbs, and hooves beating against the panes. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Just some thoughts

At the Forward Poetry Prize readings this week, chair of judges Jeremy Paxman observed that poetry was mostly "irrelevant" to most peoples' lives. He also remarked that that, having ploughed through hundreds of collections as part of the judging process, the writing of poetry, at least, was in "good fettle" but the problem was the "reading" of the stuff.

I think he was making a fair point. As a graduate of a Creative Writing MA, I am one of thousands of aspiring writers who are processed through such courses, with dreams and ambitions, and some skills. While of course, there is much to learn from these courses (not least a sharpening of critical faculties) arguably one of their most important effects is to produce a fresh audience of what might be called 'deep readers'. People willing to give their time and attention. People willing to work at a poem with their selves, to give it time to breathe. In this sense, poetry has become a self-sufficient ecosystem, feeding itself (just), and long may it flourish for it is precious and vital.

J. Paxman (who incidentally was wearing distractingly bright red socks) is right though in economic terms - most poets are lucky to sell a few hundred books, receive some reviews in journals, mostly read by other poets, and Creative Writing professors, and then perhaps begin work on their next book.
Most poetry, it seems, is purchased by friends and families of the author, and other aspirant poets. So much poetry is only enjoyed by other poets. This is a loss as engaged, aware interesting people are missing out. Poetry makes life richer and sweeter, more musical. I know lots of friends, who are English graduates, who are afraid of poetry. They tell me they do not understand it. I don't really understand why they are put off. I tell them there is not a right answer; it is like art. Your own interpretation is valid in its own right. Just let the sounds of the words wash over you like song, that is enough. Or read deeper, thinking about every word and the white space around them. What the title really says. How the poem opens or closes itself. All these ways are valid and vital to reading too. It's not a religion or anything. You just have to give it your time and attention, like much that is worthwhile.

Will Self said recently the "extension of the human mind into the virtual inscape is already underway; people no longer depend on their own, personal and canonical memory to analyse and validate new information - they have outsourced such mental operations to algorithms..."
This is true. Our brains are changing...if I need to know the answer to something I go online without thinking. Perhaps I already knew the definition of a word, or a geographical location, but I google for the absolute to check before I check myself. I don't need to learn a poem by heart, because it is there at my fingertips.
We exist with less uncertainty. Our brains are in some senses becoming a meta-brain, and we must be aware of these semantic and synaptical shifts.  And ourselves as agents in a market, every click a footprint.

I know every generation harks on about technological advances and the death of culture. But such dependence on what Self calls "a monetised intellectual prosthesis" demands awareness and even restraint before we alight on the search bar for 'truth' in a fraction of seconds.

Anyway if you've got this far, it's worth reading this -

Monday, 29 September 2014

A letter to..

A letter to ... my pre-teen

Dear Son,
You are no longer at primary school - congratulations! You are old enough for secondary education now, and you carry your work around with you, like Shakespeare's 'creeping snail' with his 'shining morning face'.
You will learn to dowse the character of a group, to read the nature of each teacher and your relationship. 
You will learn how erratic buses are, and how to look like you know where you're going.
You will rest your head on the steamed glass windows and feel the weight of your books at your side.
You will be vulnerable. You will learn to keep your valuables safe.
You will ride the perpetual suburban commute. You will learn to stay dry in the rain.
You will lose: games, umbrellas, friendships, watches.
You will score: goals, answers, brownie points. Hopefully not drugs.
And you will learn to balance work with play - to sit at a desk while the sun is shining and work, but also to put your pen away and run outside.
You will make new friends, and keep the oldest ones close. You will learn to kiss.
You learn the value of kindness - innate and learned. You will learn to lie, to charm and to flatter. 
You will learn who you are, and who you are not, and how to tell them apart.

Your writing is spidery and etiolated. You collect words like a metal detector with pennies. You are nosy, you are kind. You love to play football. Your feet are beginning to smell. You bear a beautiful smile, and a mix of baby and adult teeth.
I want you to know I understand
Much love,
Me xx

Postscript - I will be right, and wrong about this, as it always seems to be!

Monday, 15 September 2014

Just some notes

I found a bat on the school run today, a little velvet purse in the road. I only saw it because I went off course to put something in the bin. It was lying, quite still, on the ground. When I picked it up, it cried out, but I could not hear a sound. I couldn't take a photo as I didn't have my phone. The memory of it won't leave me. I put it up high, on a fence post, away from the buses, and it crawled towards the trees. I think it was very young; it was terribly light and fine-boned but full of will. I was surprised how weird it was, this mammalian flying creature, almost constrained by its design when not air-borne.

I found a tiny bat on the pavement
it had a carnivores' mouth
cut like a shark's, nicked, at an angle,
a clear bead of viscous liquid
like honey at the entrance of its anus
small intelligent eyes

it moved by hunch
inside the cloak of itself
hunch and push, fine claws
on the edges of a kite
wings fine as calf leather
mole skin, back of a mouse
but spinier, a face I won't forget
fierce as it crawled, hunched and crawled
away from the traffic, from me
up into an elm

i worry for the bat, the youngest thing,
making its way,
should i have drip-fed it water?

Its mouth opened as I took it
let it crawl from my hands, let it be

Thursday, 11 September 2014

More poetry

I've been a fan of Roy Marshall's blog for a while - particularly enjoying the honest, refreshing way he writes about the poetry business and his personal experiences. Take this heartening piece on the submissions minefield, for example, which is both enlightening and encouraging -

I have a pile of rejection slips from various magazines, particularly Smiths Knoll,  in a folder, and I enjoy looking at them, now and then, and reading the perceptive comments the editors made. They were right; I think I sent poems too early, before they were fully realised, and I'm glad now they didn't take them. Even the best poets have been rejected several times, and I think it can be easy, as a young poet, to become disheartened if poems are returned. Perserverance, resilence, reading and honing your craft are all key.

Anyway, I was really pleased to meet Roy at the Poetry Book Fair last week and talk about such matters. I'm delighted to be a featured poet on his blog today, and you can read the post here - and find details of Roy's own work, including his latest collection, The Sun Bathers, which I look forward to reading.

Finally, the Next Generation Poets 2014 were announced today - billed as 20 exciting voices for the future, following from the last lot in 2004 which included names like Alice Oswald and Jean Sprackland.
It's brilliant to see so many women poets on the list - 12 out of 20 - or 60 per cent - and I was particularly pleased to see Rebecca Goss, Kate Tempest  and Jen Hadfield selected, poets whose work I love.  You can read more here -

Monday, 8 September 2014


I had some good poetry news this week, after learning I was one of ten finalists in a poem-on-a-beermat competition, on the theme of light.
The competition was run by the Bradford on Avon arts festival, and the ten poems are now out in the world on hundreds of beermats in pubs around Wiltshire. I wonder what the punters will make of them!
I'm always excited by any opportunity to take poetry out from the page and into the real world - on the sides of buses, in waiting rooms, or even dropped from the sky. Sadly, much new poetry is only read by practising poets, and that is a loss for the wider reading public who can be intimidated by the form.
I was pleased to be in the company of some beautiful poems, which work with the idea of light on many levels.
My poem (they had to be 12 lines max) was inspired by walks along the edges of the Thames at Greenwich, when the tide is out. There's a lovely fresh, riverish smell and the shoreline is always full of interesting, not very savoury things such as animal bones, odd sandals and egg sacs.

Below is a link to the competition website - you can read all the poems and judge's comments.
There's also a interesting blog post by the poet Josephine Corcoran which is worth a read.

And here, in an act of self-promotion, is what the judge, poet Martin Malone, said of mine:

‘Riverside’ – This poem was on my shortlist from very early on. It has real movement and a graceful development throughout, towards that last clinching stanza. The pacing and rhythm cleverly mimics the poems movement from the solidity of the seashore with its ephemeral detritus to the more fluid ebb-and-flow of the sea ‘stitched with light’. Marvellous.

Cheers Martin. Now, where did I put that beer?

Wednesday, 3 September 2014


Summer is almost over. The trees are turning and reddening, infinitesimally, and the swifts have long gone. I've missed doing this little blog and glad to be back.

Our boy went off to secondary school today. He looked small and a crumpled in the uniform of a man. Blazer with shoulders but not the bones to fill it, yet. Two bags across his body. A lunch to sustain. He let me kiss his soft cheek, smooth as the underside of a forearm, still lined with fat beneath the skin. He walked off, among the older people, to the side of a building, into an open door. I could not go with him. I could not help him find the room. I could only watch as he receded, and turn back to my daughter, waiting. 

Now I miss him. Ten years ago, he was one. He was everything to me, and my life was stacked in steppes around his day. Now I am alone, smoothing his sheets and picking up pyjamas. I miss him but I let him go, to make his own mistakes, to find the right classrooms, to learn the art of lunchtime queues and making himself right and real. But how I miss my little boy, my heart, my blood song, my truest love.


I can't wait to get him home and give him a hug. It's just the same feeling I had when I went back to work in 2003, when he was four months old. It was only part-time but there was this visceral tug that could only be assuaged by his actual physical presence, warm and heavy in my arms.  I still have this need to smell him, to come close and breathe in his own particular smell. I still sometimes breathe him in, while he is sleeping.
I wrote a poem about this feeling - it was the first poem I ever published - and I still remember the jolt of joy when I opened the letter telling me it was going to be published in Poetry News. That was back in 2006. Wow..

Here is is, anyway  

Sarah Westcott 
First Days

I left you at the nursery,
pink-eyed with fisted hands.
You blinked at other baby's wails,
lips curled on the cusp of a scream.
They lay you in a velour chair,
bobbed fleecy shapes across your face.
I rode towards a leaden Thames.
The office glared from yellow eyes.
I forgot to log-on, lost my pass.
Under the new suit my breasts wept milk.
When I got you home and kissed your neck
we were both already someone else.