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.


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