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Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Guest Review: Horton on Bird

Christopher Horton reviews
Hannah and the Monk
by Julia Bird

In Hannah and the Monk, Julia Bird’s first book, almost nothing is as it first appears. One example is "Clip", which if it begins with the bright optimism of any typical Hollywood road movie, ends with the kind of dark catastrophe more in keeping with a bleak David Lynch thriller. When a couple who had been ‘necking Americanly in the front seat of a Cadillac…a Buick’ are unceremoniously killed by ‘a swarm of stockfootage’ the tone quickly changes and it becomes apparent we have been cunningly misled.

Indeed, throughout the book, Bird exposes the limitations of narrative by consistently denying us the happy ending we may unconsciously desire. Her brief short film poems – of which there are five threaded throughout the book – similarly subvert the conventional storyline. In "Short Film", for example, a man who seems to be taking his first driving lesson is about to freewheel into his own mother or at least this is strongly inferred: ‘Through the windscreen’s/ frame he could see the porch step, his mother from the waist/ down, milk bottles full of air.’

But if Bird is adept at undercutting and revising the reader’s narrative expectations, she also has the uncanny ability to summon up a killer image. "Fire in a Crowded Theatre", like "Clip", refuses to provide us with a happy ending, instead winning the reader over with its central conceit. The fire that threatens to engulf the theatre becomes, in itself, a performance so that the ‘half dressed stars’ come to see the inferno as ‘the plot of this play’.

Throughout the book there is the sense in which Bird is playing with the reader and, whilst this could possibly be wearing if carried out by a lesser talent, she pulls it off well. So well in fact, that we even excuse her indulgencies - a number of the poems are the end product of word games ("Prelude 1" uses the vocabulary of the fridge magnet poetry kit). One reason for this is her clear enjoyment of language and her willingness to extend the imagination as far as it will go.

But Bird is also able to persuade the reader of her cause. In "Article of Faith", for instance, she alludes to the continuity of past to present. Citing a number of infamous and historical happenings, she writes ‘articles of these are sherbert in our throats’ and by the time we get to the last two lines ‘Do you believe it too? / Breath if you do’, the reader is prepared to put aside what might, in reality, be a well founded scepticism and join with her.

If Bird’s box of tricks enables her to convince us of practically anything, it is her humour that keeps us charmed. Even in those poems which appear initially more conventional, such as "The Animals Went in Two by Two" and "The World’s Population Visits the Isle of Wight", there is a subtle, gently mocking tone. This is the poet again enjoying the act of writing, revelling in the fun of the fantastical. In "The World’s Population Visits the Isle of Wight", she poses the question ‘could you get the world’s population on the Isle of Wight?’ The answer is perfectly judged and to comedic effect: ‘They fit. There’s some doubling up in the B&Bs/ but the landladies juggled the kitchen shifts.’

This is also a collection with a great deal of technical merit. Whilst it would be overstating it to label her a formalist, Bird is someone who clearly takes time to count the beats. "Covent Garden", possibly the best-worked and most entrancing of the poems in the collection, seems to possesses a kind of symmetry through its tight metre, brief asides and treatment of speech. In the poem a chance meeting becomes more a test of the boundaries of love that perhaps infers the poets’ own trepidation in defining that feeling. It is the sense of longing ‘underneath the moon and planes in tiny triangles of sky’ that endures.

"Covent Garden" is an example of a poem that hooks and draws the reader in. Our interest is in the experience but also what it seemingly tells us about the poet. Where Hannah and the Monk perhaps falls short is that it fails to do this more frequently. We learn very little about the poet throughout the collection and whilst this is by no means a call for self-indulgence, there is a sense in which we are left partially unfulfilled, craving more biographical hints and greater insight. As such the book oddly does not always feel to be the sum of its parts and although there are some outstanding stand-alone poems, it is hoped that in subsequent collections the poet may delve a little deeper. That aside, this is a book that confirms Bird as a real talent with tremendous potential.

Christopher Horton is a London-based poet.
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