London Grip Poetry Review – Caroline Bird

Poetry review – ROOKIE: Louise Warren welcomes this selection from Caroline Bird’s previous books

Caroline Bird
Carcanet Poetry
ISBN  9781800171879

I have always loved the poetry of Caroline Bird, so it was a treat to read this volume of her selected poems. It is ingeniously and mischievously titled Rookie, for that is what she surely is – rookie poet. Subversive, surprising, never one to follow the rules, completely herself.

Bird’s first collection Looking through Letterboxes was published in 2002 when she was just fifteen years old! Here is a glimpse of her brilliant early talent.

I’ll break my neck if I jump again from the top of the stairs.
I’ll suffer for the rest of my life in hospital
If I put my finger up my nose and then the wind changes.
I know this because you told me.
                                             (‘I know this because You Told Me’)

And here is another example

No one else is having your heartbreak.
Your perfect pulsing peach
in scarlet syrup,
your creamy self-pitying.

Not even when the whole world
Is stacked like chairs
and you are milky-eyed
with sleep, honey chocolate,
blues before bedtime.
                                                   (Your Heartbreak’)

There she was, challenging us with her raw, funny, spot on clever writing. You knew that, like the young Sylvia Plath, she was a one-off, a unique poet.

In this latest compilation of her work we get to see how Bird has developed while staying true to her voice. In the wonderful ‘Afterword’ she looks back at herself and says, ‘Putting this together was the loveliest, luckiest task. And it was also a bit like watching a breakdown in slow motion whilst strapped to a chair.’ She talks about how poetry was a way of hiding her true self, because, ‘once hidden I could roll my heart in sequins and chuck it out glittering into the street.’ But now she is here. Lesbian. Out. Confident. Brilliant.

In her collection Watering Can (2009) you see her wrestling with her sexuality as in this excerpt from the aptly titled ‘Closet Affair’:

When the shivers of shame have stopped, she said
I’ll just hop on a bus and go back to my husband
but first – this might sound odd – I want to sit 
in your airing cupboard for a couple of hours.

Bird is drawn to the imagery of the domestic, the everyday: airing cupboards, playdough, Gardeners’ Question Time, carpets; but she also draws upon a surreal playground, a risky edgy dreamscape where the rules have been banished. We can see this in ‘Mistress of the House’ which comes from the intriguingly titled Trouble Came to the Turnip (2006)

The Mistress of the house is scared of moonshine,
roast dinners and post.
There will be no divine intervention.
The plugs are sick of electricity.
See how the coffee table creeps around the room?
See how the mistress of the house
Carries it on her back like a coffin?
She has armed herself with sticks.
She is ready for bed.

The hiding she talks about earlier is here tenderly and achingly evoked in the domestic. So tragic, yet so funny. Her writing is never never over-egged; she uses the most delicious phrasing. Elsewhere, she explores another form of hiding, this time hiding behind words.

It’s me or the dog’ she laughed,
Though by ‘dog’ she meant ‘void’
and by ‘laughed’ she meant ‘sobbed’
and by ‘me’ she meant ‘us’
and by ‘she’ I meant ‘you’
and by ‘or’ she meant ‘and’.
It’s us and the void she sobbed.

When Bird’s poetry runs wild, it really does. Her voice is urgent, full of upended fairy tales and chaotic inside-out domestic dramas.

But when I return,
the swaddling-wraps still steaming on the floor
from when I evaporated, my mother
pours green tea, shows me the tyre marks on her wrist –
souvenirs from the grey motorway.
Then she points at the sky and says,
‘Those are clouds’,
then she takes me outside and says 
‘This is sunlight’,
then she pushes me down a well and says,
‘That is darkness’
and I mean to say, ‘obviously’
but I say, ‘Bandages, griddle and ouch’.

She plays with language, reshaping it like playdough, but she is never whimsical. She is quick to bring a poem back to the real world just before it flings itself into the fantastical, and then she punches you in the gut with something heart wrenchingly simple. From the collection Those Days of Prohibition (2017) here is ‘The Amnesty’ (quoted in its entirety because it is so whole and perfect)

I surrender my weapons:
Catapult Tears, Raincloud Hat,
Lip Zip, Brittle Coat, Taunt Teeth
in guarded rows.   Pluck this plate
 of armour from my ear, drop
it in the Amnesty Bin,
watch my sadness land among
 the dark shape of memory.

Unarmed, now see my saunter
past Ticking Baggage, Loaded 
Questions, Gangs of Doubt; my love
equips me.  I swear, ever
since your cheeky face span round
I trust this whole bloody world.

Finally, we come to Bird’s previous collection The Air Year, which won the Forward Prize in 2020. An“air year” is apparently the year before a marriage and The Air Year is dedicated to the poet’s wife-to-be. The poems are a sequence in flight, full of unexpected joy, the possibility of what happens if we step out, take a risk, lift our wings and jump. Here is ‘Mid-Air’ to give a sense of what I mean:

Oh God. Music preceded by mid-air,
when the baton lifts, the orchestra tightens: ‘And’
before the ‘one, two, three’. And
the sunlight is meticulous. And the river
holds its tongue. And your silver
earring steels like an aerialist’s hoop, caught
 mid-spin. A note almost sung. Locked
in the amber of the and.
We just want to land or
be landed on.