Aug 28 2023
Poetry reviews – THE BIRD ROOM and THE CINEPHILE POEMS: Louise Warren reviews new collections by Dawn Gorman and Alan Price
The Bird Room Dawn Gorman Hedgehog Press ISBN 978-1-913499-67-9 20pp The Cinephile Poems Alan Price The High Window ISBN: 979-8-370682-97-1 118 pp £10
Two poetry pamphlets. Both featuring photographs.
Dawn Gorman’s The Bird Room is a homage to her ornithologist father. Her childhood was immersed in his bird watching adventures. Her cot, and later her bed, were placed in the corner of his study. In the title poem she tells us:
There were no birds here. Just books about them, maps on the wall with a forest of pins to mark where he’d seen them, and drawer after drawer of eggs.
Only eight poems here, a clutch if you like, placed between four of her father’s exquisite photographs. There are two more on the reverse, one being of her as a child with her father, reproduced in full colour. So, this is a slim volume but it is crammed with evocative detail. I could almost smell the feathery dust in the air, and as I carefully turned the pages, I felt I was uncovering hidden treasures. Each poem is as precious as an egg.
You’d collected them when it was legal, and only one from each clutch. I felt their loneliness, lifted my face for the same whiff of air.
She shares a memory of cold November bird watching trips to the reservoir.
The new binoculars yanked at my neck, hard circles under my eyes, a cold smell of metal, men’s voices, all of them waiting to see what I could see.
What can she see? Birds of course. Flashing across her childhood lens.
Gorman looks back with a poet’s eye at her childhood self, but she also considers herself and her father as they are now – as if looking through the lens the other way.
Today as you rest, I pick them up, that pair (they seem smaller now) look through the wide end and far away can make out the platinum dance of winter water.
For these are poems that mark her father’s passing. There is a poignancy and emotional heft to them that means they are more than observational, more than just memory. Each poem is written for him.
The binoculars are a recurring image of looking back at the past, observing herself in the present, and also the object itself, a physical reminder of her father.
I’ve been using them for a year now, taking them to the woods when I remember. There’s still something about their smell that brings you to focus, bit I’ll never be able to point them at a tree and find the right branch, the one with the bird on it.
On the page opposite this poem, an owl stares out. It’s in close up, dark eyes staring right at you amid a frame filled with soft brown feathers. Beautiful.
In another image, titled “A Quiet Moment” (presumably by her father), a woodpecker perches on a log. It appears opposite a poem called “My Heart is a Roomful of Birds”, in which Gorman conjures up the voice of her father in her ear, saying ‘Wait here and see what happens.’ There is a sense of regret here, that she was too young at the time to really listen, to take proper note of what he was pointing out to her: ‘Your best binoculars, now on a peg in the hall’.
Throughout these beautiful poems Gorman is making notes; she is looking, and inviting us as well to look at her father’s love of birds and of her love of him.
There are no birds in Alan Price’s book The Cinephile Poems, but Alfred Hitchcock does make an appearance with The Lady Vanishes (1938). The poem is accompanied by a black and white shot of Michael Redgrave, Margaret Lockwood, and Selma Vaz Dias (looking sinister in a nun’s habit with high heels), leaning over the bandaged form of a kidnapped Miss Froy.
This is one of a sequence of prose poems in an action packed and beautifully produced homage to cinema. Like The Bird Room this is a book written with love – in Price’s case his great love of film. Here is a poet who really knows his stuff, and this is a clever, thought provoking and confidently made book. Also hats off to David Cooke from High Window Press for producing such a wonderful collection.
In his fascinating introduction Price confesses,
The more I wrote the more I wanted to illustrate their mark on my personal history. It was very hard to ration my choice of films to 39 poems, as hundreds, even thousands, of films have affected me for good or ill.
So he has given us an eclectic choice to dip into (and this is a book you will want to dip into over and over again). His choices range through silent movies, classics, early sci-fi, British horror, European avant-garde, Japanese epics, and more.
Each prose poem is accompanied by a black and white still from a film, or something related to it; and this is where Price surprises us. He does not go for the obvious. He chooses to give us atmosphere, to conjure up the film through an almost sideways glance at it. His is a very personal telling.
In 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a film we are all familiar with, he chooses a photograph of a tube station with a train just departing out of the dark tunnel and on the wall, barely visible in the shadows, a poster for the film. Price tells us,
Exhausted from tripping I bussed home wrapped in Cinerama 70mm. Next day I was reborn (no relaxation for a star-child). Dragged out of my deep freeze youth to realise one day I might end up old, alone dying in bed: faked objects of Western civilisation all around me.
Another photograph is of the back of a man’s head, a hand just resting upon it. Is this a sign of tenderness or control? The film is Michelangelo Antonioni’s unsettling masterpiece L’ Aventura (1960). A rich Italian party: bodies, looks, gestures, an island, rocks, the seam a church, a piazza, and a rooftop, holding onto a continual ache in an exquisite design of loneliness. This is the beginning of Price’s take on the film, and he sets the scene beautifully.
He writes with a filmmaker’s eye and a poet’s voice. In the Afterword he talks of how the book came into being. It was the genesis of an unpublished biographical novel from 24 years ago, about a young working-class boy from Toxteth in Liverpool, who fell under the spell of the cinema. Maybe he should dust that novel off. I for one would be fascinated to read it.
So there you have it: two very different books of poetry, but both using photographs in an imaginative way:
The Bird Room by Dawn Gorman – spare and delicate as a drawer full of fragile eggshells.
The Cinephile Poems by Alan Price – packed full of filmic thrills and fascinating detail.
I loved both.