Jan 12 2024
Poetry review – BOOK OF CROW : Emma Lee reviews Anna Barker’s collection of narrative poems about a journey through grief which is shared with an unlikely travelling companion
In Book of Crow readers are introduced to Rachel, whose mother dies while she is still a child. Her grief takes of a physical form in the shape of Crow,
Crow is the deep incision the twisted root the souls turned out of their bodies Crow is the rib of winter the trees bending to speak to themselves the easing back of form Crow is the last word.
Some of the poems are narrated by Rachel, others by Crow, the narrator being indicated in each case by an avatar, a woman’s head or a crow. Rachel’s mother ended her own life and Rachel remembers,
the shock of her beautiful, beautiful body. Give me instead the kicked-away bedroom chair, the bin bags stuffed with her clothes, the salty tang of sandals in Tesco bags.
She doesn’t want to remember her mother’s physical presence but prefers to focus on small details, the inanimate chair, the clothes packed into bin bags or stale tang from stored shoes. These small things seem manageable, unlike the loss itself.
Rachel, accompanied by Crow, grows up and starts to see a therapist who asks about Rachel’s childhood. Rachel doesn’t remember or doesn’t want to remember much but offers, ‘a drawing with a yellow sun, / me and Mum on the swings, /crows closing in.’ Here the sun suggests childhood and happiness. The swings could just be playground equipment or might hint at changes of mood. The crows are often images of harbingers or messengers of death. The image Rachel has conjured suggests her mother’s death as a shadow over her life. However, Rachel wouldn’t have known about her mother’s plans or death until it happened. The foreshadowing comes from hindsight, which throws doubt on Rachel’s offering as a childhood memory. A later memory seems more authentic, the family in a cow field when the father,
He was singing Strawberry Fields, that's it, and she was laughing the way people do when something's both funny and tragic. But the cows didn't hurt him. They weren't even unfriendly. Just one, perhaps, swaying forward, as though to test her courage. The matriarch, darker than the rest.
Readers can only speculate about whether the father was deliberately trying to cheer up the mother by singing or whether the song was a spontaneous choice arising from a conversation. Unless there are calves present, cows are inclined to ignore people. However, one moves closer, perhaps curious, perhaps as a warning. Rachel remembers her as a leader, someone stepping up to take responsibility and perhaps protect the others. She describes this cow as ‘darker than the rest’, which could be colouring or mood. Or perhaps a projection: her mother could have been burden by maternal responsibilities which may have triggered depression.
The poems don’t delve into the mother’s motivations. Their focus is the aftermath, a girl growing up without her mother. Later the girl discovers alcohol. Crow comments,
All time runs through me, the water and the wind. And yet... the way your top lip hangs over your bottom lip when you sleep. Night falls. People, rolling bottles, clip-clop heels, drunken laughter. I should shout for you from a frosty perch, your name so stretched and thin it frightens me.
Crow doesn’t want to spell it out but Crow is dependent on Rachel and wouldn’t exist without her. So Crow is worried when Rachel starts to become more independent and spend time away. However, Crow comes to realise,
I'm thrilled you're embracing the light it's about time you started flapping those wings but let's be honest though we had a good thing going I was getting bored listening to your shit.
Crow is trying to encourage Rachel about moving on and to convince them both that it will be a good thing.
Book of Crow is a journey through grief. It has mournful moments but also includes humour and tenderness. Crow and Rachel need each other and their understanding of each other as passengers on the same road. They need each other’s stories to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense: a mother leaving her children before they are independent. The poems explore sentiment but are not self-indulgent. While understanding why Rachel’s mother make the choice she did is beyond their remit, they don’t seek to blame the mother for her decision.
Any book with a crow as a central character will prompt readers to think of Ted Hughes’s Crow, whose protagonist is a trickster and a fiercely independent character in search of his creator. However Anna Barker’s Crow is well aware who its creator is and is more dependent on Rachel so there’s no direct comparison. Anna Barker has created an intelligent, wry-humoured friend, for Rachel who allows her to discover herself free of grief, adjusting to her loss and carrying it with stoicism. To follow Rachel through these stages is a journey worth taking.