An Aviary of Small Birds – Karen McCarthy Woolf


Karen McCarthy Woolf’s debut An Aviary of Small Birds (Carcanet, 2014) is a tour de force. It explores and tackles the trauma of giving birth to a stillborn son, and traces the reverberations of loss that follow. This collection is arresting and unapologetically raw.

It begins with ‘The Undertaker’ which is carefully paced, breath by breath. The lines, though short, are not curt; they capture each moment, from the simplest but significant detail of the ‘white gloves’. The poem is constructed of three stanzas of three lines each. Each line rhymes with the others in the same stanzas but the rhyme is subtle. This keeps the emotion under control while maintaining a forward momentum.

‘I am trapped in a room where my baby dies’, begins ‘My Limbs Beat Against the Glass’. It is a statement so harrowing, there could be no response. This mode of concentrated, steel-eyed accounts of trauma is adopted by many poems within An Aviary of Small Birds. As the poem progresses however, Woolf resorts to more conventionally poetic metaphors. When the speaker describes herself ‘like a moth battering a paper lantern’, we could ask where is the moth battering? Is it from within the lantern? Or from the outside, as we would expect from a moth in search of a flame? If the moth is inside this would be consistent with the speaker’s sense of being ‘trapped’ and with the desire to ‘fight my way out’ but moths move toward fire. She is pinned ‘to a felt-backed board’ as if dead, but she is alive. The paradoxes of actions taken by dead things, and the subversion of the natural behaviour of moths creates confusion. This is at odds with the terse expression with which the poem begins.

In ‘Morbleu’ trauma is represented through the disruption of form. Words are pulled across the page and punctuated only with em dashes, suggesting a slurring of emotion. The centre of the poem

—we haven’t got—
a heart         beat

separates each unit of sense. The weight of all they haven’t got is both highlighted and constricted, restrained by the em dashes. The blank space between heart and beat contains a world of lost possibilities.

Other experimental poems in the volume feel their way around innovations in form as trauma is explored. The list poem ‘The Museum of Best Laid Plans’ is an ordering of what may seem otherwise mundane items if it weren’t for the tragedy that has come since their acquisition. The last lines, even though we know they are coming, are a sucker punch: ‘W Uden & Sons Ltd, Funeral Directors, labelled Infant:/Locks of Hair.’

The most striking poem in the collection is ‘Mort-Dieu’. Both beautiful and horrifying, it asks a question which is at once simple and complex. That binary is ripped apart by two word lines and the pain is practically palpable. ‘He was/born still’ has two opposing meanings. The speaker’s son did die, but he was born. In ‘Mort-Dieu’ his birth is almost an act of defiance.

‘White Butterflies’ consolidates the motif of white as death that is first raised with the undertaker’s white gloves. White is all-consuming in its blankness. What is most painful is the absence: the absence of Woolf’s son, the absence of his future, the extinguishing of his potential. In the poem the natural world is oppressed: ‘on the artichoke spikes/in the walled garden.’ Humans have contained nature, but the butterflies (here a symbol for death) can come and go as they please. The last line, in its understatement, is devastating: ‘Your tiny white vests, unworn.’ The later poem ‘Reasons to fear butterflies’ is an excellent compliment to this poem, allowing the white butterflies of the former to take on a second, more explicitly dark meaning. It offers the reader another window in, and further demonstrates how well these poems are suited to the format of the collection.

There are certain poems within the volume with first lines so disarming, that the rest of the poem almost can’t live up to them. ‘Yellow Logic’ begins ‘Was it because I should have’, a line which in the context of the rest of the volume takes on a greater significance than it could muster if read alone. The fantasy scene that follows is poignant but the emotional impact has already been made. Perhaps in a volume which deals with aftermath this is fitting. Poems like these are almost victim to Woolf’s bluntness, which is elsewhere her virtue.

In ‘Missing’ too, the first line summarises an immeasurable pain: ‘Every day I wake up and remember’. In lines that follow however, the sense of loss is so concrete you almost feel guilty for bearing witness to it:

In the photo your eyes are closed
and you don’t look like anything any more
but you never know

In ‘The Paperwork’ Woolf’s expression ‘they’ll sew your little tummy up’ exemplifies a heart-breaking motherly touch, speaking to her son. It is as if through the poetry she wonders how she can be a good mother to a child who never lived.

An Aviary of Small Birds is accessible, clear, brutal, and beautiful. Woolf’s talent is complimented by her strength, both evidenced by the collection. There are poems included which are more forgettable than the likes of ‘Mort-Dieu’, but the latter are impactful by virtue of their context in this accomplished collection. An Aviary of Small Birds demonstrates the unrelenting power of poetry in finding expression for darkest of human experience.

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