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For a couple of weeks I’ve been wrestling with this collection. Is it good, is it very good, or am I attracted to it because each poem has a moment that makes me stop and hold an image or a phrase? This is not so much a review as an elusive, fluid personal reaction.

Some books – poetry, novels, whatever – are like that, aren’t they. You pick something out and keep coming back to it. In the end it doesn’t matter if you like the whole thing or not.

The general theme is what it says on the cover, and on the back cover blurb for that matter, the plight and place of flightless birds in our imagination and in the world. It’s about how we treat ‘things’ that don’t do what we believe their function should be. Too often we say ‘these birds can’t fly so what’s the point in them’ when we should say ‘these birds don’t fly, this is their point’.

Given that my preference is for wide-ranging, marauding collections over tight, thesis-like arrangements of poems, its positive effect on me is something of a surprise. Yes, if Janet and I had been offered it when we edited Ragged Raven, we’d have probably sent it back and said, yes, we like the way you write but what else do you do, give us more, let’s see how far you stretch? Make it bigger. Others, maybe most others given the tendency for ‘contained’ collections these days, are probably happier with this way of doing it.

At first in this piece I tried to examine it poem by poem. It was a ridiculously lengthy attempt that was expecting too much of anyone reading it. I have cut that down now, to use a few reactions to individual poems that might explain my attraction for, and dilemma with the book.

The opener, Preparing Game Bird – Notes To Self, takes the form of a recipe. It’s slightly unnerving fun. Corlett knows well enough how to begin with a hook, in this case mix sugar, syrup and bicarb in a deep saucepan/ while she bubbles, shrink a good tree… I enjoyed that, but then got irritated by the bracketed follow-up (if you don’t have a whole tree, the bonsai’s fine). This threw me because as far as I know a bonsai is a whole tree, just deliberately confined in size, grown from a cutting. The recipe is fun, though, because it instructs not how to cook a game bird but how to build one. The shrunken tree becomes the skeleton, etc. Wind up angel hair pasta like a ball of yarn to make the brain

Karen Carpenter on Drums in the Azaleas might seem a fairly conventional workshop prompt – person, activity, place – except that Carpenter did play the drums, which made me think why her? If the dramatic need is for a woman, then there were others before her – setting aside jazz which I know little about, I remember Moe Tucker with The Velvet Underground, Honey Lantree with The Honeycombs, later Meg White. It seems the narrator wants a personal connection with Carpenter – A circus poet once told me that the thing she loves most about birds is that they’re constantly in their essence. So listen,/ I want you to know,/ you hit that for me… your drums spread through the garden like blood moves through snow. Ah, here’s the sinister stuff again, although Carpenter seemed to me to do her best to hide her suffering, which makes me question the explicit image of blood on snow. Is it adding two and two and making ten? It’s a strange, confusing poem, but once again, has that enticing, memorable first line hook: Your body is the half-second before thunder/ when air is cleared. Carpenter’s body, as most will know, was destroyed by anorexia.

Paper Bird is, initially, about making a paper bird, then takes a strange tangent. I hope that someone robs a bank in the time it takes to make this bird. Time speeds up when you build a flightless afternoon… I enjoyed the switches from the gentle, idle moment of making a bird out of paper, to the thief robbing a bank, and then to some kind of erotic interplay. Closing his hand/ around hunks of soft banknotes cut/ like hair – from the safe to the bag to the car./ Don’t move,/ he says. Hard to say why it’s delicious. And then comes a direct ‘memory’ that is startling – the narrator names a friend, Emma, which turns the mood to gossip, who sent a postcard that read: Flew to Vietnam to have sex in a parked car/ with a man I met online. The unexpected but delightful link made, the poem returns to the paper bird. I hang it with cotton string and watch it slowly spin, and wraps up with another strange anecdotal finale about children finding a drowned rabbit.

Sometimes, as in God Is An Ostrich, which plays with the idea of creation, with personal growth and development, it feels as if Corlett is exploring her theme as she goes, as if the poem was to a large extent unplanned. I found myself for a fleeting second or two in Hughes and Crow territory here, which may not be a popular thing to say, given that through this book there is a feeling of female struggle against male force, or patriarchism.

Ladies Kindly Remove Your Hats opens with a stark personal warning. Don’t put me on a pedestal/ because I will let you/ down. It’s a message to keep your distance, not get too close, to leave the narrator to live as she pleases. I wear a plumed hat/ to a silent film. It feels as if there is some kind of attempt at disguising hurt, perhaps.The feathers – ostrich, perhaps – come from the flightless bird. The narrator isn’t sure what she wants, is it drama, over-reaction, no reaction, everything or nothing? It’s probably that I’m trying/ to provoke a murder. My murder flicks across soft millinery, bang/ against the auditorium.

Flightless Bird obviously lends its name to the collection. It is a near-rectangular block (only the last line falls short) which probably has some kind of name in form. It’s a sentence without beginning or end, in that apart from the word I and the name of the poet Bukowski it is entirely in lower case, with the only punctuation apostrophes. I admit I have a fondness for the sound of poems like this that just roll on from word to word, phrase to phrase without a break, not worrying too much about where they go or if every single word or reference works. They should be read aloud as a whole. Because of that there isn’t much point in quoting too much from this one, except to say it’s personal, sensual, consistent. The flightless bird is confined to a painting as a hair the narrator finds in an old book that belonged to her ex-husband is confined to the book and the memory of when she wore her hair long and curly. I really enjoyed shouting it to myself!

I found Funk Island more difficult. Again, there is intimacy, a journey towards a strange light, or way of using language, of setting free. We crack/ through leaves for days to find it,/ feeling out Funk Island:/ faithless enough to hold volumes/ of bird fables. I didn’t get the connection with the title until I read that it’s a place I’d not heard of, off the coast of Newfoundland. Once I understood this, I got more out of the physical things the narrator finds as the exploration develops – a mysterious pamphlet entitled How To Take Off tucked inside a Snickers wrapper, and eventually words that don’t feel tight or restricted but which sprawl and are filled with air.

Prophet-like that Lone One Stood also takes us to a physical place: Orkney, or more precisely Papa Westray, where on cliffs a pink cairn made by children in the shape of a bird, a Great Auk, is the image around which the poem is formed. I found this one became over-complicated as it developed, with a switch in tone from the descriptive to an address of, apparently, the cairn or bird. The phrasing becomes unwieldy. You weigh the same/ as a 6-month-old and you will not withstand/ any psychic slackness… it’s as if the poem suddenly begins to wrestle with itself and loses its precision. Others will disagree but I thought it would have worked better condensed, almost minimalised, concentrating entirely on the visual experience of coming across the cairn.

Leda and the Ostrich. OK, so the tale of Leda and the Swan has been interpreted differently through time, but now I’d say the most conventional modern interpretation is that Leda is either raped or seduced by an aggressive male-god (Zeus) in the form of the swan. It’s a somewhat confused view of a violent interaction. Corlett uses the perhaps more ancient sense of eroticism to allow the female narrator to welcome the lover. Again, the hook is excellent, as they sit, perhaps in the gallery cafe: When you rub your neck, /sneeze, / or drink coffee,/ some banality/ beacons my body/ into a temporary moon… It happens/ when I write your name/ in condensation. It’s a lovely, gentle moment of sensuality, of the warmth of a new love. Towards the end, again, after the diversion into the gallery itself, the real lover resurfaces – this is the pull of your honeytrap mouth on the lip of a cup. One of the highlights of the collection.

Immediacy is another examination of a close, sensual relationship. Again, the hook is intense. I liked it when you said the word immediacy/ because the clock/ and me listening and your knuckles near my legs/ all met the word and held it locked. I didn’t like the line about hearing the shard of a song through the door of the kitchen of the cafe or restaurant where they were sitting – shard, over-used anyway, seemed ill-fitting and if its hardness was designed to contrast with the softness of flesh, it jarred for me. The poem moves on to compare past mechanical sexual encounters with the reality and intensity of genuine love-making, a decision that works. I just thought it might have been a tighter poem, which would have heightened the intensity even more. Plenty to enjoy in it though.

Fabric is full of good lines. Again, I felt it could have been improved by tightening. For once, the first line seemed like a practice. The best line comes almost halfway down the first page and if the piece had a title like Wardrobe, then it would have been an evocative and vivid start: The hanging outfits look like a queue of cartoon characters. Her uncertainty seems confirmed by the subsequent explanation of what the line means. It might have been better to go straight on to It’s as though their flourescence and blindness to physical pain/ are the manifestation of an internal might. The second half of the poem gets to the heart of it – she links back to the cartoon characters through the sheer daftness of Donald and Daffy Duck playing the Hungarian Rhapsody – and it feels like a frenzied and vital opposition to all the years I went home, and drank coffee standing up, and did the dishes before turning on the radio, and rejected my husband’s advances/ as if all pleasure must be paid for. This is so powerful it deserves to be freed from the early clutter. It might even have made a fine ending.

I’ll Invent an Emu is another poem with a fun idea filled with darker stuff. It also feels like another narrator at work. The earlier one wouldn’t have used an archaic stereotype like tall as a man, comely as a girl so there’s some kind of irony at work. Again it has an element of menace about it. I’ll humiliate its bones… the list of how the narrator would construct the ‘new’ bird is persistent to the point of obsession but again the connections are hard to hold on to. One moment we have an egg landing in the emu’s nest as softly as a cat, then the narrator’s telling us he or she was first to be flightless, and we’re off again with a strange image about a 747 in imbricate petals – imbricate suggests something much harder like scales, so I struggled with it.

St Kilda, however, is a fine sequence of four poems (or a four-part poem if you like). We are back to the extinct Great Auk, humanised, feminised, victimised, modernised… the Great Auk holds no internalised mood./ No anchor to herself. It’s like she’s waiting/ to ask permission. In part two we move on to the day the last people left St Kilda (in 1930). It’s a gentle, imaginative piece about the conflict between the beauty and hardness of the place, the sense of freedom and independence it must have offered in its isolation, set against the narrow-minded, destructive, imprisoning nature of lives lived out there. To be free/ yet to freely espouse/ an island fit for prison,/ for good impartial justice. Parts three and four are sorrowful, regretful and again accusatory, talking of the time before the human evacuation when the Great Auks were beaten to extinction. Corlett takes a small licence by shrinking time, as the last of the birds were supposed to have died some 80-odd years before the human evacuation, but maybe accuracy is unnecessary when such a dramatic image finishes part three – the men who would scale the rock-faces to take her egg, the three who beat her to death are The same men/ who years later would pay in felt and oil/ for their own evacuation. Part four sets the men against a three-day storm, with the Great Auk compared to a witch perhaps, then the men climbing back up, the feathers of the dead gannets they had fastened to their belts falling like snow. and clearing themselves a path through the ledges where fulmars roosted. The men survive and destroy when the birds do not. It’s some of the plainer writing in the book and no less important, no less emotive, for it.

Flight is an intriguing, enjoyable follow-up. Two large, unidentified birds fly into each engine of a jet, bringing it down from its flight along with them. The plane crashes into a mansion. It’s a tragic but absurd image, treated with a degree of comedy – a mansion with a jet through its middle,/ and all the branded napkins/ up in a flurry./ the seats’ under-foam all showing,/ a big house full of seat belts/ and relatives. We get an equally absurd newspaper headline and an ironic advertisement for a holiday a near-seven-hour flight away, then the ghost of a nanny looking up from the garden. There’s no great conclusion to it, which is its strength.

Dodo is perhaps another key to the theme (or thesis) of the collection: My skull rests/ in the oldest zoo/ in Copenhagen. As it develops, though, through the voice of the Dodo, the poem suggests we reconsider how we view birds that don’t fly, those who don’t, or won’t, do what we would have them designed to do. The poem stays connected to the Dodo in history, mentioned in ship captain’s journals and logs, included the advice not to cook one for too long. Eventually the voice of the Dodo takes on a defiance… my design is full./ As natural and legitimate/ as a free bird. This might be the key to the whole collection. The poem imagines seventeen Dodos – or their spirits – left in a swamp now covered by hard core and concrete, and is completed by an image of a handkerchief, a souvenir from a ship, that the hidden birds keep. I won’t spoil it by repeating it but it’s a fine finish.

Emus in Winter – a six-liner, visual, not sure the whole thing is enough this time (a bit rich after earlier asking for something shorter…) but contains one telling line in the light of the full collection. It is as though each small part of your body/ signals something larger.

Tracks links the male emu taking its role as parent seriously enough to sit on the eggs to the appearance of a new man, whatever that is, emerging from the sea as if he’s some kind of comic apparition. He’leaves behind the grooved impression of his tail feathers, / like the markings of a pheasant who has been walking through snow. She’s having fun, obviously, but plays with the idea, letting it run and finishing it off well with the reality of the emu’s chick emerging and the struggle it will face to survive and thrive.

Perhaps she is being mindful moves to a narrator who watches a woman resting her eyes as they travel and in doing so considers her own ability to transform her life and her own loneliness or perhaps sense of loss. It’s a simple, ordinary, truthful moment well told and one which develops into the feeling of the movement of the train – muscular and deft and ungainly and very good/ in the way heavy birds are often very good runners. She considers the strange symbolic protection unusual birds and animals are afforded by publicity and brings all this back to her own potential, the possibility of a new freedom.

Perhaps this too is what is at the heart of the book. Perhaps.

Flightless Bird, Rosemarie Corlett (Shearsman Books,


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