An Aviary of Small Birds, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Carcanet, 2014, 88pp, £9.95 (paperback)
The Weather Wheel, Mimi Khalvati, Carcanet, 2014, 96pp, £9.95 (paperback)
Gumiguru, Togara Muzanenhamo, Carcanet, 2014, 96pp, £9.95 (paperback)
Poems that deal in grief are, macabrely, some of the most enduring and best-loved poems in both the private and public consciousness. I still recall the physical jolt of reading Roger Mitchell’s ‘The Story of the White Cup’, shaking me out of teenage lethargy. Gillian Clarke’s ‘Six Bells’, commemorating the deaths of forty-four miners in 1960, was chosen as one of this year’s ‘Poems on the Underground’, bringing the capital’s commuters into daily contact (as if we could ever quite forget) with a paean to loss.
In Karen McCarthy Woolf’s collection, written after the loss of her son in childbirth, the sick shock of loss waits for you in every poem, sometimes awoken in a single word, so that at times it is almost impossible not to lay the book down, blink and look away. This feels at once a testament to the power of McCarthy Woolf’s writing, but also a guilty capitulation that the reader feels compelled, rightly, to override. Many of these poems have a hard, glittering quality, as though penned with the keenest, and most painful, of nibs. ‘The Registrar’s Office’ begins with the matter-of-fact statement that it ‘isn’t really an office’, but quickly come the darts and jabs of rising fury:[…] I’m loved up like the other
mothers gazing at meconium as if it’s fresh tar
on a road not an odourless black shit
that’s been on the boil for nine months
Even as the poem reels into hysteria, the speaker promising that she ‘will get’ the registrar ‘a window because that’s not right / expecting someone to live and work and sign / death certificates without a window’, we are aware of the poet behind this, her fastidious pen capturing, with precision, the quick-changing flurries of dispassion, anger, misery and mania that make up the vicious cocktail of grief.
‘Brave’ is an adjective that has been applied to both this collection and its author, and should be swatted away for its inadequacy, its whiff of condescension. Grief isolates, and while this collection is indescribably moving and, at times, painfully intimate, it also maintains its own cordons and is, in this sense, also bleakly honest in its portrayal of loss. There are many short, reticent poems in this collection, where the poet drops in some urgent thought, some recollection, and then moves away, leaving the barely-struck chord to climb within the reader to its full, mournful pitch. The moon appears, elongating ‘the globe / to a watery / ovoid’, or wriggling ‘like a pup / as she’s swallowed by the lake’. Animals also hold a fascination: chicks who were once ‘a yolk that rise / up to the warmth of the hen’s breast’, the wolf ‘turmeric-eyed and luminous who is both ‘alone’ and ‘never alone’. Elsewhere there is less majesty; one poem prizes ‘a fledgling wren; a flattened rabbit’, geese whose ‘ribs and / feathers matted to form a hardened, gelatinous web.’ McCarthy Woolf is striking out against that unwritten code that marks the victims of loss out as sacrosanct and pitiable; there is a kind of sly ugliness or brutality that rears suddenly in many of these poems that feels as if it is there to outstare the reader, to dare them to mutter ‘brave.’
The poems in Mimi Khalvati’s The Weather Wheel adhere unswervingly to a single formal conceit: every one of the sixty-one poems in this collection consists of sixteen lines set into eight couplets. If that sounds like a serious limitation to self-impose, Khalvati is at pains to prove just how small a one it is. These poems strike the reader as the best short stories do, ending on trailing shrugs of denouements that are, for all that, never unsatisfactory. Animals populate these poems, but are valued more for themselves, in the first instance, than for their symbolic representations. Khalvati is precise in making the distinction between ‘human noises’ and ‘owl, pheasant, / wailing fox’; she recognises that it is not just an act of artistry or generosity to give poetic space to ‘the barn owl, goshawk […] / with their own big beauty.’
These poems are meditative without being precious, and the emblems of the natural world which populate them thrum in genuine tandem with Khalvati’s contemplation of family, relationships and loss, an unstrained symbiosis which explains the ‘Wheel’ aspect of the title. The image of fruit-bearing trees recurs, bringing with it the dreaminess of Yeats’ ‘golden apples of the sun’. The poet’s son ‘has eyes like fruit in a tree, glassy, / Rainier cherries very high up. One cannot reach them’, and elsewhere ‘the apple tree / below my window holds reddening apples up to me’. The Weather Wheel depicts a kind of Ovidian landscape, although here, violence and threat occur within. ‘Tears’ charts
the first weeks after my mother’s death
I curled up like a foetus on the side of my heart
My tears were like fresh water, warm and clear
[…] But in the months that followed, tears dried up
And world took up its stick and walked blindly
through the riverbeds
The wheel structure of the collection, each section of which represents a spoke, also represents the process of elegiac grieving for the poet’s mother, suggesting both the inevitable movement forward and also the incessant revisiting of memory and the sensations of love and loss. A sequence of poems set in Marrakesh begins by matching the immediacy of still air and dribbling water, suddenly, with ‘joy, the way it bubbles in the most arid/ of deserts or rains blue gold’. In these poems, Khalvati is incessantly paying tribute, not just to the quiet joy-makers of a morning in Marrakesh, the Berber water sellers and ascending muezzins, but also to a more personal hoard of inspiration: Proust, Paul Bowles and Matisse; elsewhere she invokes H. D and Alice Oswald. This plays into the powerful coherence of the collection as a whole, the golden wires extending from each poem, silently forming a mesh to encompass the whole. If this sounds too much like a trite dream of ‘oneness’, it isn’t; in this collection, holism is not synonymous with harmony. Wherever we touch fruit and flowers, we must also, Khalvati reminds us, ‘touch and smell gas, smoke bombs, blood meal, bait’. She offers a version of totality without any (inevitably dissatisfying) rationale.
The Zimbabwean landscape is the canvas for Togara Muzanenhamo’s second collection – a canvas that is vigorously rolled up, shaken-out, work-stained, snipped at and critically appraised. This is another elegy, but rather than the oneiric mournfulness of Khalvati’s couplets, these poems have a sterner quality to them; the reader’s eye is continually refocused by bucks and jerks of an ever more penetrating acuity.
Muzanenhamo’s landscapes lie thickly on the tongue, and would veer towards self-indulgence in a less scrupulous poet:
avocado trees squatting below the bowl; iron belts and mesh
quietly gathering ancient starlight. Orion falls westward,
deep in the hunt – the heavens thick with fables, the rush
of white frequencies sluicing through air
There’s enough here, and throughout this collection, to make the reader feel, as the late Dannie Abse put it of good poems, ‘a little drunk’; but that’s not just on the pure, fizzy pleasure of the language, but also the edge that comes with it – the swoon of hard liquor rather than sugary, empty elation. For every hymn of stars and sky, there’s a counter-note that speaks of a relentless anti-exoticism: the ‘crippled horse tethered like a goat’; the preacher who ‘calls Herod a cunt during the sermon’, the cattle dip’s ‘dark foetid water skinned with thick slime / and dung’. Muzanenhamo’s imagery is luscious, whether mud-caked or fragrant, (I twitched with pleasure at ‘the hen’s salt white breast soaking up a lake / of blood and yolk), but inevitably it works to most memorable effect in his sparer poems; a victim (though hardly that) of his own ability, if you like. ‘At the Work Yard’ is one of these, a portrayal of an accident:[…] something about Sixpence
and the welding machine, the cold sun falling flat
on Pension’s blood-spattered overalls
Sixpence sits ‘hunched in the laboured sound / of his own breath, his ‘skin browned / by an unspoken lineage’. These are far from being the most striking images in the collection – by Muzanenhamo’s standards, they’re almost pedestrian – but this poem strikes out a notable irruption, as hard-edged as the work-yard itself, bullying the reader into thought as surely as the brutal mechanisms of ‘pulley and chain’ bully their victims out of it.
The title poem, ‘Gumiguru’, falls two-thirds of the way through the collection, and there is a sense of the poet laying the ground for this tribute to his father as well to the landscape of home. In the Shona calendar, Gumiguru is the arid month before the first rainfall, and this dry heat prickles through the poem, the figure of the father emerging ‘curled in bed like an / ancient fossil’. Mirroring the poet’s own disorientation, this prose-poem’s stanzas contract and unfurl ostensibly at random, long, meditative sentences stuttering out into truncated fragments. The father’s remembered ‘god-like strength’ peels away to show a ‘body curled like a foetus’, drowning ‘in his own fluid’. The moment of death itself is marked by a stretch of white space where a stanza should have been. It is hard to come out of this sequence and into the last few poems of the collection. The intimacy and distress of ‘Gumiguru’, as well as its wandering form, make emergence difficult. As it should be.