The poems in this collection are clever and funny, but I’m often suspicious of clever and funny: Funny how? I’ve been programmed to ask, and the word ‘clever’ is all too often just criticism in disguise. A lot of poems are funny and clever but there has to be more, and happily there is. This collection is an interesting one, an engaging blend of fable, myth, fairy-tale, irony, parody and satire. Confusion is endemic for the characters inhabiting this world: who might muddle their lines ‘I stood very truck as the still went through me’ or who ‘… live in south east west London’, (from the multi-layered and impressively inventive, ‘Mothers’).
Bird’s poem ‘Kissing’ closes with characters who: ‘… like surfacing from a cinema in mid-afternoon,/ will meet the daylight scandalised.’ and the same might be said after reading this collection. The narratives of contemporary life are fused upon the very narratives that contemporary life was built around, and by juxtaposing the two, Bird gives the reader an alternate reading of both and this is exciting.
In ‘A Disgruntled Knight’, the political, historical and contemporary, hybridise memorably:
My armour is not polished: I am not a poster boy.
I make the ugly red-brown stain on the battlefield.
The celebrity knights only stay for the fanfare…
These celebrity knights, Bird quips, ‘can’t lose a fingernail let alone a leg’, but the humour gives way in the closing stanza to a thought-provoking commentary on warfare:
This is pretend war. I feel pretend hate. Unicorn!
Unicorn! My kingdom for a unicorn!
Someone still has to stay here and die.
I like to take something away from a poetry collection, something I can keep, one such example of this is Bird’s wonderful, ‘cling-film sculpture of fog’, from ‘I’m Sorry This Poem Is So Painful’; it makes me happy to know that I’ll never have to look image-less at cling-film again. I also like the side-long way Bird invites the reader to interpret her narrators’ (and characters’) world-view: ‘Love the soiled bit. Look three ways/ before gouging. All’s fair in drove at wall’, from the aphoristic, ‘Two Cents’.
Bird’s characters meander through the book in a deliciously infantile way, confused, tetchy and often appearing to be in need of some kind of intervention. In the final poem, ‘Corine’, the narrator introduces a dubious happy-ever-after scenario: ‘Corine is married now…She’s found a fireside decoration/that talks back’, has ‘Someone to pass the salt’, and the poem closes with, ‘Hold on/to the edges of your eyes; don’t cry./Corine is happy. Now say goodbye’. The gulf between Bird’s narrators and her characters is skilfully engineered and very satisfying.
While reading this collection, I was aware that I was carrying with me a piece of biographical information that try as I might, I couldn’t ignore: Caroline Bird’s first collection ‘was published when she was just fifteen’. So for the first read through, this remarkable fact may as well have been a header on every page; a fact guaranteed to set the bar impossibly high, along with a challenge not to weigh every line, brilliant or mediocre against it. But this is Bird’s fourth collection, (the first I have read), and after spending some time with the poems the number fifteen faded into the background and I was left with a good feeling, a feeling that I personally experience rarely, that this poet has a depth of imagination that makes me think, and think again, and that makes me want to keep the book close by so I can pick it up again later and think about it some more.