Rachel Lehrman reviews
The Man Who Spoke to Owls
by David HW Grubb
What I love about David HW Grubb’s newest book of poems is the refreshing ways in which he offers the world to his reader. That which is familiar; that which we seldom notice; those things we try to describe in new and exciting ways only to find that they remain the experiences we know— childhood, family, war, fear, death and god—are at times, presented in ways that re-sensitise us. It’s not so much that Grubb finds new ways of looking at the world or new aspects of it to examine. Rather, through music, language and silence Grubb creates unique perspectives which reacquaint us with the world we thought we knew. In a sense, we are untaught-- the world becomes more of what it may actually be before it is analysed and contextualised by the mind. We are not only made to see again its joys, wonders, horrors and tragedies—but to feel them.
Though this freshness is not maintained in each poem and while the stirring music and resonant truths occasionally fall flat, these are merely passing moments in an otherwise a highly successful collection. More importantly, the treasures that we do receive are so valuable and rare, that for me this book has earned not only a place on my bookshelf— but a regular place in my hands.
The Man Who Spoke to Owls is divided into three sections. The first draws on Grubb’s experiences as a psychiatric nurse. We are invited into the various worlds of the mad where,
‘We can do running and throwing light and watch out
for the angels of upsidedown and trees they fall over
and the quiet is a dance without shadows
between what we see and what we settle for
and the chairs that are blue to begin with.’
With his frenzied rhythms and unconventional use of syntax, Grubb creates music with an immediacy that catapults us into a way of experiencing and feeling. At times, these worlds are raw and undigested; at times they seem recognisable, but transformed— as if twisted through a kaleidoscope. We aren’t sure as readers whether theses worlds somehow become our own— or whether they always have been. It is here we venture into ‘A House With No Windows’ where there is god and Emily Dickson and angels, and of course ‘The Man Who Speaks to Owls.’
The second section moves more deeply into family and religion; it is the child contemplating the world of his parents and grandparents, now grown with children of his own. We meet Grubb as a father in 'Poem For Daughters' and then as a child in 'My Fathers Bells' and 'My Father Will Not Let Go'. The speaker’s father in these poems is an austere man—a man of god whose words ‘came out of a dark room spouting Latin’ as well as a man of quiet and nature. In this section we encounter more traditional syntax and rhythms. Though I was initially put-off by the slower more narrative and prose-like passages in poems such as 'My Father’s Bells', there are still moments in these poems in which the world comes back to us in forms that resonate both personal and greater truths:
‘Sometimes you are there in an arrangement of words,
the ripple of a hymn, or coming across the lawn after a funeral
with whatever words could do, the contentments of light, these
agreements of faith...’
The final section of the collection draws on Grubb’s experiences as an aid-worker and perhaps his work as founder of Children’s Aid Direct . Here we meet war but we also meet life—its beauty, its fragility and its smallness. The world somehow grows larger, and though we encounter tragedies they are told subtly, without any of the dramatisation we are accustomed to hearing in the news and even our own tellings. The frenzied ‘voice’ of the collection continues with its strange juxtapositions and wild music, but here it also embodies a silence that adds to both the subtlety and ultimately the emotional impact and power of these works.
Colours are made into feelings. As readers, we understand on some intuitive and precognitive level that blue is not only a colour, but a lens that somehow falls over the world. It is a both a wish and a way of experiencing. We feel that we are not in the world of the mad, but that the world itself is mad and strange, yet somehow still full of colour and wonder.
‘In a blue world the dancers will take us to places where
we no longer need words and toys are hidden in the long
grass and everything we knew has to be learnt again;
the name of each day and what it has to do in being’
On the whole, it all works together: the rhythms; the surprising juxtapositions of words and images; the fresh use of language; the repetitions and the insights and reflections that always somehow seem personal and also true on a larger scale. And while there are poems in which these elements do not coalesce, such poems or lines somehow seem fleeting in the larger breadth of a superb collection.
Lehrman moved to London in 2002 after completing her MFA in creative writing at the University of Arizona. She was recently published in the anthology Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by UK Women Poets (Shearsman, 2010). Her work has also appeared in Blue Fifth Review (2008; 2009), The Drunken Boat (2007) and Shearsman Magazine (2007;2010). Rachel has collaborated on a number of art-projects in London including Nomadics (2005) and Understorey (2007). In 2004 a recording of her work accompanied an installation exhibited at the Hayward Gallery, London. That same year she exhibited her poetry in broadside format at the Camden People’s Theatre. In early 2009, she completed a PhD in Collaborative Authorship at Roehampton University.
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