Shape shifting: a review of Annemarie Cooper’s The Flight of Birds

Sunday, 16 February 2014

The Flight of Birds by Annemarie Cooper

Soaring Penguin Press , London, UK

Reviewed by Susan Jane Sims


This is a lovely collection to handle. Congratulations to Soaring Penguin  Press. I was immediately drawn in by the lovely cover depicting birds in acrobatic flight on a grainy grey background.

Now, for the poems themselves. The opener  Early ( p.14) holds the promise of what is to come.  This a poem that barely touches the page yet has a haunting depth to it, setting a tone that continues throughout much of the book; of humankind as both player and accessory in the natural world. In  A shape shifter advises a fugitive (p.16) we are encouraged to consider different guises “toad-safe”, “pike-safe* and “crow-safe” as suitable forms to escape notice.  “Crow-safe” wins out. Crows have a large brain in relation to body size, the largest of all the birds (apart from Ravens) and this leads to the conclusion: “that’s your best bet; human./It’ll mean walking round/with a big heavy brain/but you’ve got your hands free/for the gun”.

This follows on from a poem with a common-place experience as its theme. We have all held a shell to our ear (Listen, p.14) “Shells are so dry away from the sea” we are told yet contain the fluid sounds of the ocean. Think of the woman whose children have left home, the empty nest will always contain the essence of them and she can  summon these memories at will. This poem is a beautiful metaphor for longing. Longing is again in evidence in  Ghost, (p.12)where  the poet presents the idea of a presence “fresh from death”. A original way of describing  death, it works beautifully  just like the “pebbles” we are left with “falling to the bottom of the glass”. Heaviness contrasted with freshness.

Annemarie has a wonderful empathy with the natural world, the tree in Spring described as a tenement for a host of birds, all named (The Apple Tree, p.14) in August, becomes a hidden home for insects, the colony brutally exposed when the apple is cut open neither “jump[ing] or “freez[ing” just remaining as they are. Nature, here being observed as unreactive, in unspoken contrast to the human-being who prefers to act rather than be acted upon. The narrator though is keen to make amends and gently places the exposed world on the ground so that the occupants can “relocate” if they wish.

Then there is the cat Kizzy who has relocated in the narrator’s mind (Kizzy between lives, p.17) to the status of star, a common wish for a loved one lost however this poem  successfully avoids sentimentality by using the cat’s voice in playful dialogue and indeed indulging in play itself up there among the meteors. Cats of course are known in myth to have nine lives so the title and the concept is lovely. Kizzy is not dead, simply between lives, waiting for “something more challenging” to come along. A lovely thought and relocation is a known healing concept which helps us to deal with grief.

Annemarie loves to take us close to something, be it adventure, death or perhaps sexual awakening. and then steps back, saying, not yet, not yet. In Magic, p.36, the child narrator is shown the “mouth of the cave/that went all the way down away from the light”. We are told “She showed me the place so I’d know where to come/when I was grown up and the time was right”. Perhaps an illusion here to the myth of Persephone, who was abducted and taken in the underworld. Growing up and becoming a mother is touched upon in Janet after College, (pp.38-39) when Janet appears to be giving up  a creative career as an artist and dressmaker when she gets pregnant but turn it full circle and Janet’s interest in small things of beauty, the universe as “a single cell” was now proven with the “whole new being” inside her growing “cell by cell”. Is it sacrifice or is it the ultimate in creativity? Like many of Annemarie’s poems the strength lies in ambivalence, the positioning of both darkness and light in the same poem, in the same breath.

Overall this is an interesting collection from a promising poet.