Poetry Review: The Shape of a Tulip Bird. Maria C. McCarthy finds these poems of loss by Christopher Hopkins to be compelling yet almost unbearable
The Shape of a Tulip Bird Christopher Hopkins Clare Songbirds Publishing House, 2019, ISBN 9781947653726 68pp $12.99
How do you find the language for grief? The only way is through metaphor: ordinary language is not enough. In “Hospital”, a nurse voices a practised ‘sorry’. There is both ‘talking / and listening’, but what the poet notices is colour: ‘Black lines of tick boxes’ and ‘the dark blue jacket of your medical notes’ contrasting with ‘Spring’s primary colours’ outside the room. Colour is used throughout the collection: the blackness of grief reflected in a night sky; the visceral redness of blood; the blue of a deep, dark mood. Darkness and light are used too, where we see ‘The Alice band of light’ fading to ‘a fathering dark.’ In “I See, Only With the Light From Fires”: ‘I grieve in a lesser black than you.’ In “The History of the Colour Red”, starlight and firelight are small points of light in the darkness; a rainbow hangs ‘over a spectrum of cold green & grey’.
Hopkins and his partner have lost a child through a miscarriage, and this collection charts a father’s grief, as separate from that of the child’s mother. She is given voice only in the title poem, a recognition that ‘only/ a mother’ can feel
the electric join of womb to soul, ache to healing.
Worse still, the loss warns ‘I’ll bleed you out / like a rose / breaking.’
As the book’s title suggests, the metaphors around birds are abundant in these poems. There are starlings, a magpie, a seabird killed by ‘plastic suppers’, and it is the mother’s heart that ‘takes on the shape of a tulip bird,’ a bird that does not exist. The mother is ‘Nested and empty’; a single magpie in the hospital car park signifies sorrow:
There will be no girl there will be no boy
The poet looks for solace ‘under the curve’ of his own mother’s wing, but ‘Her wing was too stretched and hollow / and the light passed through it.’ In this poem, “Inside the Tear”, the mother offers only platitudes, and the juxtaposition of the beautiful language of metaphor is stark against the angry response of the poet:
I should pull myself up on the withers of some fucking horse.
The couple travel, taking a journey by sea. The poet hopes for the distraction of beauty, after beauty has been torn apart, but ‘Death lives on the coast’ and ‘Beauty can’t be trusted.’
Their twin griefs run separately from one another. When communication fails, anger sets in: ‘I can […] make you cry with crack of vile / from my foul mouth’.
There are moments of lightening: in “The First Light”, there is dawn, ‘brightness’, ‘the honey sun’, ‘the kindling smoke / of a newborn fire.’ But this is followed by ‘A sun ray of a coldness. A strange heaviness.’ In “My Language Has Run Out of Broken Bones”, the sun on the bedroom wall, reflected from a mirror, opens ‘Another life in parallel’. The change from What could have been to What is can occur in a matter of moments as the new year turns.
A lightning storm in “Prelude to Night Swimming” sees the drama of the couple’s recent loss replayed on a beach at night. ‘The black & blue & flashed’ suggests bruising, illuminated; and then comes ‘the light’s transition’. A moment of relief follows:
We waded in, up to our waists, And the sea lifted us.
The light and dark motif recurs in “A Portrait in Starlight”, and the visceral signs of this loss are laid bare. ‘The clot of loss’, ‘the phantom smell of milk … from a muslin shroud soaked through with it.’ The poet tries hard to see light, to ‘Spark your brightness back’.
In “Otter’s back” there is a return to closeness, a hope of future life ‘stretching years ahead of us … with a solace of headstones, /side by side.’ In the following poem, “My Dear Night Beside You”, there is a further loosening:
I’ve watched the knot behind your ears fall in ribbons
But this is brought on by drink, and the poem ends: ‘you are nothing but pity’s drunk.’
As we near the end of the collection, “We Washed the Blood of Childhood From Our Faces” suggests a reawakening of intimacy, of sex, as ‘stone tongues / begin to wet and flicker’.
What was lost, was not replaced or forgotten but we were remembering ourselves. our scars already loved each other.
In the early poem “Magpie”, we have:
If life is a feather black or white, then death is a blinded bird singing to the night
This contrasts with the collection’s final poem, “White feather”, whose title suggests that the poet has surrendered his grief to a new happiness. Centred on the page, as if the poet has found his balance once again, he sees ‘each star speck / is a father’s peck / on a daughter’s head.’ There is a new child, or perhaps the hope of a new child ‘in our sharing dream’. The child has ‘your cinnamon eyes / and my pear chin’.
Like grief, the reading of these poems can become unbearable. They are rich and visceral, true and beautiful. The Shape of the Tulip Bird deserves to be read; the grief of a father understood.
There are Boats on the Orchard, poems by Maria C. McCarthy, images by Sara Fletcher, is available now. Also by Maria C. McCarthy: strange fruits, (poetry, in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support), and As Long as it Takes, linked short stories about Irish women living in England, with the Tom-Gallon Trust Award-winning story, ‘More Katharine than Audrey’.
As Long as it Takes is also available as an ebook.