Chris Beckett finds himself wanting more from Julia Bird’s idiosyncratic menu of poetry subjects and styles

julia bird

Twenty-four Seven Blossom
Julia Bird
Salt, 2013
ISBN 978-1-907773-56-3
65pp   £12.99

This is a delightful collection of disparate poems held together by Julia Bird’s pleasure in the texture and detail of what surrounds us. The book is also held together structurally by seven anecdotal little prose poems “to be read on one breath”.

This interspersal is a tactic used by quite a few of my favourite poets, for example Kei Miller’s wonderful Place Name poems in The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, and Anna Robinson’s lovely moons in The Finders of London. The blurb on Bird’s book refers to these poems as stepping stones, I found them more like stopping stones, somewhere familiar at least in format where you can stop and take a moment to breathe, slipping completely into the moment of the poem, which may involve having your hair washed by a tattooed hairdresser or teaching your little nephew in the bath to say octopus. The act of taking a single breath (I found it nigh on impossible not to take two…) makes them part of a continuing meditation, an immersion in physical observation which frees the mind.

Having held your breath for a moment, you step back into the world. The poems you find there are wide-ranging, and they absolutely refuse to stand still. A kingfisher moves in a trice from the real live bird feathers the colours of jockey silks to a metaphor for the kingfisher-ish speed of thought:

                                            I have felt a thought

dart from its perch in my best imagination
to flash about the branches of a stranger’s brain
                                               (‘A Kingfisher’)

When the pavement cracks between the cab firm and the chicken shop, a flower stall springs up:

the city’s special offer to the passer by.
.                                          
(‘The Preservation of Flowers’)

Elsewhere, a bendy bus gives us a tune on its grey accordion, while each Chinese cracker at a banquet is pondering its own gunpowder heart. Everything is alive and moving. Sometimes Bird’s tone is playful, for example in the delightful gorilla monologue ‘Koko the Signing Gorilla Tells Us About Her Day’; at other times you feel that the sheer complexity of the world –

Golly, such a quality of mess!
                                                (‘A Jar of Jam Is In My Hand’)

or what Bird in the same poem calls a small chaos,/ all possible, paused on the point of release –is about to explode and take us and the poet with it. This is the poem as grenade, and its power is openly welcomed, not fought or shrunk from. In the same way as the infinite number of dog breeds that will never fit into the Ark (‘On Visiting a Church Built to the Same Dimensions as Noah’s Ark’), creation is so prolific as to be necessarily uncontainable and therefore prone to self-destruct. Good God, the mess! Bird exclaims late in this wonderful longer poem, since crap and piss are also a type of destructive flood, as writing and speech can be too:

no sooner said than sunk, all hands and
hooves and trotters lost

Not only the poems but the book cover itself is thought-provoking: we see a butterfly on a flaking wall, both beautiful images, ephemeral, natural. Below this is the title like a clothes label stitched onto the jacket (suggesting these are poems to be worn). But turn to the inside back cover (still part of the same poetry jacket) and you see a photo of the poet not in woodland or against a mossy wall, but on a terrace somewhere overlooking busy offices and tower blocks.

If I have any reservation, it is perhaps to do the number of poems which the notes tell me were written as commissions or for themed poetry nights. They are rather wonderful poems in their own way, but I feel not as fully “Bird” as the rest: they have a slightly showy quality and take me in directions that are not always followed up. For example, the first poem ‘Thirty-Two Girls’ is about maternal ancestors,

One wants only to wear her long plaits in a bun

but we hear nothing further in the book about these grandmothers and great-grandmothers. I would have liked to hear more, my appetite was whetted. But I ended up thinking that, in the context of this book, I would have liked even better to have longer, bigger Arks, more exploding jam jars, more pavements cracking, gorillas signing/singing, more single breaths. In fact, more of anything that Bird has chosen herself, out of her own idiosyncratic menu of subject and style, her own important concerns and obsessions, to entertain and trouble us, her readers.

Which means, of course, that I am already looking forward to her next book!

.

Chris Beckett was born in London but grew up in Ethiopia in the 1960?s. His second collection, Ethiopia Boy, was published in 2013 by Carcanet/Oxford poets and was enthusiastically reviewed in Poetry Review and Poetry London. He also translates Ethiopian poetry into English. More info is on http://www.chrisbeckettpoems.com