I understand that the most recent Eliot prize judges were not unanimous in awarding the prize to Ocean Vuong, that this collection from Caroline Bird also had some serious backing; rightly so. It is first rate.
It is divided into three sections, the first of which deals with Bird’s troubled mental health a ‘blank year’ on her CV spent ‘repairing my septum’ and a counsellor who told her she ‘used Poetry to hide from myself’. Poems with titles such as ‘Patient Intake Questionnaire’ and ‘Bipolar Purgatory’, the latter of which appears to be a stream of consciousness, scream from somewhere a long way down with, ‘…a theme song in my tooth…a cobbler on speed-dial…’ she’s ‘a neon fish, an interstellar anomaly, undercover angel…’ Or ‘Far from Civilisation’…going on holiday without the meds…which doesn’t go well. The prose poem ‘Beatification’ opens with the memorable lines,
‘My father was a hundred and five years old when he discovered the pleasures of crystal meth. At first I thought his gurning mouth and disjointed speech were symptoms of dementia. Imagine my relief…’
It continues in that vein and is darkly hilarious as her dad moves into the world of on-line porn to support his habit, under the name ‘The Pounding Pensioner’
Bird has a gift for gallows humour, expressed dead pan with laser accuracy, her choice of words and images is exemplary and often surprising, as good Poetry should be. ‘Star Vehicle’ is two pages long, a series of stand alone lines, nearly of which begin the phrase, ‘Can I shoot you…’ (meaning ‘shoot’ in the photographic sense), a couple of my favourites being:
…in my trailer with my pet monkey
…pointing at a gravestone with a crimson leather glove
…with the whores of Warsaw, doing the locomotion
…raising twins, one mad and one sane
The middle section deals with love, desire, secrets and centrally her love for her wife. ‘Adultery for Atheists’, a fine poem, contains the memorable image/question as to why anyone should carry ‘these indelible blots…these/ pellets in my heart absorbing/ shame like tampons somehow/ expanding inside me…’ before concluding, ‘…what luck to be/ Godless…’
The final section seems more general, less focussed and as such the least successful of the three, although it does contain two fine longer poems ‘A Toddler Creates Thunder by Dancing on a Manhole’ and ‘Megan Marries Herself’, the latter of which concludes, ‘…as the bride glided herself onto the dance floor,/ taking turns first to lead then follow.’
At 36 poems over 42 pages this collection is concentrated not thin; punchy not sparse. You can read through it once reasonably quickly, but you will return to it and return to it as the images refuse to fade.