Dec 18 2023
Poetry review – BIRDS KNIT MY RIBS TOGETHER : Giles Watson reviews Phil Barnett’s collection which records close personal encounters with the natural world
On my own worst days as a sufferer of chronic fatigue, walking out to find a wildflower or lose myself in a wilderness may only bring on worse debilitation – but if I remain in my garden and stay very still, the birds will come to me and begin, in the words of Phil Barnett, to ‘knit my ribs together’. Barnett’s new collection from Arachne Press condenses, in its incandescently beautiful fifty pages, the experience of losing mobility, and its words are haunted by birds, flitting in and out of the beauty and the pain. It is a book which is bound to bring a sense of common empathic bonding, if not of solace, to many readers.
Phil Barnett’s poems grew out of a long, immobilising illness which prevented him from walking, and sometimes from writing, so that his mother had to scribe the list of birds he was observing. The illness caused him to
feel every dead-hand ounce heavy hailstones inside me weight is my enemy each cell is a rock and I have dropped anchor probably for good.
There are still days when he ‘cannot walk/ not through those cloister woods to/ my bluebell church, music-deep in blackcap’, and finds himself ‘rooted to the spot’. But confined to his garden, he realises that ‘everything is here’. The birds seem not only to become extensions of himself, but also seismometers of his struggle, as the ‘diagonal flightpath of sparrow/ plots a graph, charting my decline’.
The result of this extended, ardent, soul-searching engagement with the avian world is the growth of a poetic voice which, in its compassion, does not flinch from confrontations with the suffering of other creatures. The stillness focuses Barnett’s vision, turning him into a meticulous observer of a world imbued with spiritual significance, even when its inhabitants are writhing or dying. Finding an injured bird lying on the ground, ‘a fledgling angel’, a ‘lost jigsaw piece of sky’, he sees the expiring creature as a ‘little god of hurt’, and identifies so closely with its agony that when ‘it lifted a wing, pleading/ I pulled out a thorn/ jabbed it into my heart’.
Confronted with the body of a dead heron, Bartlett does not recoil in abjection, but notices that ‘damselflies darn the air/ fixing rips with yarn of blue atmosphere’ – electrifying lines for anyone who has marvelled at the iridescent glory of Agrion splendens in flight. In Greece, he remembers buying a ‘horizon-eyed goldfinch… stuffed into cardboard’, taking it straight out into the wild and releasing it, marvelling at the ‘hallelujahs in its wake/ bicycle bell expletives’. Gradually, there is a blurring of the distinction between ‘grounded man/ and flying bird’, and the trapped bird’s release becomes his own.
The quality of Barnett’s writing is always thrilling, often dizzying and exhilarating in its attention to detail and its subtle marriages of sound and meaning. Sometimes, the language is dreamlike and hallucinatory:
wrens sipped cuckoo spit spat it to a thimble stirred in berry and honeydew dripped the tincture drip by drop a woodpecker bored my skull in trepanation drummed a hole and wasps flew out.
At other times, we are offered glimpses of the natural world which achieve their passionate intensity through the closest of fleeting observations. A woodcock, whose movement breaks the spell of camouflage for long enough for Barnett to notice it, has ‘bracken stitched/ tawny woven through fawn/ and all the fallen leaves/ that ever could be/ on the back and wings’. Its cryptic colouration is its own way of achieving liberation through stillness: an ability to melt into the world, until individual and environment are indistinguishable, and bird and human stare back at each other in stasis through the mottle of fallen bark and withered fern. In another chance encounter, with a roe deer, the deer is ‘ebb’ and ‘flow’, and it is the deer who is doing the looking ‘at the floating cork of me’. Finally, Barnett begins to wonder whether in the coming year, he will be able to distinguish birds from their environment at all, or be able to tell, ‘If I walk by the canal/… which are trees/ and which reflection’.
For those readers for whom birds are already a source of solace in an often cruel and exhausting world, Birds Knit My Ribs Together will resonate as the ecstatic outpourings of a kindred spirit. For anyone who is suffering from an immobilising illness, reading this collection will not bring ‘healing’ in any superficial sense of the word, but it will exude the quiet wisdom of one who knows how to find a grounding in a hurting world. And living in the twenty-first century, in an age of mass-extinction, when British bird species are in catastrophic decline, Barnett’s assertion that ‘only a bird stands between us / and death’ is not only personal, but prophetic. Staying still, watching, and adoring to the point of absorption could be the first step which all of us will need to take if we are to recover the sense of awe which wilderness ought to bring – and gain the impetus to conserve and rehabilitate what is left.