Feathering the Caw

  • Natalie Simpson
    Thrum. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Christine Smart
    The White Crow. Hedgerow (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Yvonne Blomer
    As If a Raven. Palimpsest Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Crystal Hurdle

As If A Raven is the resplendent love child of Ted Hughes’ Crow and Jay MacPherson’s The Boatman. Blomer’s Crow and his colleagues are less cartoony, her God, less ditzy; while Hughes focuses on Genesis, she harks to Job, Exodus, Numbers, Psalms, the Song of Solomon, and the New Testament. Like Macpherson, she goes beyond biblical myth (“amens of song”) and evokes creations and creator: “Poem, Bird, Bible: Wild. There is my thesis of sorts.” This, her third collection of poetry, is both arcane and endearing: a call to, of, and for the wild.

The work is technically superb, with disquieting internal rhyme and a frequent bird-like gliiiiide. In “The Turtle Dove,” a seven-part sonnet-like sequence, the end of one song begins the next, as bride and groom birds call and respond. The rich ekphrastic poem “Have you been hunting?” refers to a Breughel painting of Christ with Martha and Mary, lovingly capturing them and the birds at his feet. “At the Pizzeria la Fornera” reads like a painting with humans transformed into birds: “the Dutch couple, burnt red, becomes scraggly / Vultures.” The prettiness of the Audubon bird portraits is questioned, cleverly, through the passive voice: “What was nest has been skimmed.”

Precise sounds—“quip-ip,” “tirrr,” “Krok Khoa Kark,” “zizizizizziziie-diuh”—allow the book to soar beyond the page into multi-sensory beauty, with a range of colour, specificity of bird name, genus, lore, texture, and portmanteau words: “ravenravingravenous” and “humthrob.” It is ornithologically/ornitheologically captivating in turns.

The comment of the eponymous the Lord God Bird, “there is not a word for a thing existing/ because a word is there to name it,” could prove an anti-thesis, of sorts, for Natalie Simpson’s Thrum (her second poetry collection), which chooses not to name, not to classify. “Dear Poet, [sic]” begins, “You can colonize your reader’s hope” and ends, “This reader you’ve trailed craves capture, lavishing, balm.” Reader, writer, and language are elusive. Two companion poems play with the admittedly funny word “tot” in found reportage, such as, “teaching tactics to tots hot tip: keep it simple tots need grown-ups not / grow ops.” “Home” variously defined, for example, “is how hard you eat your heart out.” Birds (pelicans, an owl, pigeons, a seabird, black birds) sneak in. She intriguingly reconfigures parts of speech, inventing the gerund “doving” and the adverb “featherly,” amongst others. Simpson’s birds exist for language play: “Lapwing sounds fluttery. An evil birdish. Nobody inhabits white.”

Christine Smart’s second poetry collection, The White Crow, suggests otherwise with both poem and poet in “The Sounds of the World” recognizing the impossibility of creating “an intimate / close to the heart of the universe / poem.” Her book is not as species-specific as Blomer’s, but it nets a wide cast of animal characters, explores, as Simpson does, what home means—literally (physically building a house), metaphorically, then and now, or rather, “Here” and “There” (the clever presentation of sections in the table of contents reads like a poem), and “Here and Now.” Making good use of first person, “Donated to Science” features the dissection of cadavers (Smart is a nurse) and is beautiful in spite of (because of?) its grim subject matter:

I looked behind his eyes, named
the optic nerve, ventricles, and pineal gland

kept searching
for something I couldn’t find or label. 

She exposes what happens at the back of the hospital. “New Beds” veers into magical realism with discarded old beds still holding “a patient or two.” Humanity bleeds from these poems, many of which are about the loss of family members. Especially affecting are those about the aftermath of her mother’s death. “Released” (who or what has been?) has the speaker dialling her mother to tell about the garden’s glories, simultaneously remembering she’s dead. Possessions reverberate in “Auction Sale,” “Directives,” and “Cigar Box.” Twelve place settings, a porcelain lady, and a needle already threaded with black evoke and bear their tangible pasts into the affected, honoured present. “Buttoned Up” moves backwards: “Imagine all the quilts reformatted/ into our dresses,” but the whimsy ends on an unsettling note: “Buttoned up/ like our lips.”

Smart’s final poem, “The Box,” invites the reader to draw a box and to contemplate it: “You don’t own it just because you drew / it, coloured it or placed something inside; not even the air is / yours. It belongs to everyone.” Simple profundity is highlighted, as in the penultimate clause of Blomer’s collection:

In all this metaphor       perhaps 
their wildness       goes
Hardly likely. The cacophony of (her) ravens feathers the earth.

This review “Feathering the Caw” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 126-27.

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