Caroline Bird – In These Days of Prohibition

Disclosure: Have met Bird a few times now at readings. She’s an excellent human. The book discusses, in part, mental health issues, addiction and rehabilitation, of which I have no experience. Review copy was purchased with help from my supporters on Patreon. With huge thanks, as ever, to Muireann Crowley for editing.

Review: The first poem in In These Days of Prohibition is titled ‘A Surreal Joke’, a piece which stands on its own as an introduction to the book’s treatment of mental illness and emotional truth while acting as a small, powerful ars poetica. George Szirtes’ review of Bird’s last collection, The Hat-stand Union, published in the Spring 2014 issue of Poetry London, signs off with: ‘Any poetic voice is perceived as an angle to the world and Caroline Bird’s voice is precisely that. I am perfectly convinced by the angle. It’s just that I don’t want things all angle.’ Though Szirtes’ critique is largely celebratory, there are a lot of assumptions at work in his last point, not least that angle-free poetry is possible or desirable. Bird’s five collections are marked by their operation within a weird, restless, hyperreal and, more often than not, (certainly more often than credited) quietly tragic imaginative space. ‘A Surreal Joke’ ends with the speaker in conversation with their ‘assigned counsellor’ (noting the tone of coercion in ‘assigned’):

‘My assigned counsellor told me I used
poetry to hide from myself, unhook
the ballast from my life; a floating ruse
of surreal jokes. He stole my notebook.
I said, they’re not jokes. He said, maybe try
to write the simple truth? I said, why?’

It’s worth bearing in mind that the poet recently discussed her time recovering from addiction in an interview with the Evening Standard, and clearly there is some degree to which the protagonists of In These Days of Prohibition and their creator overlap. What’s just as clear in these lines, however, is that ‘the simple truth’ has little overlap with the poems’ ambitions as art, and the ‘not jokes’ they want to convey; poetry is not autobiography, even when it presents as such. Note also that the speaker here does not directly contradict the counsellor’s suggestions, though the book embodies what his perspective overlooks; the question of whether truth is accessible in the first instance, or truthfully communicable in the second. In ‘A Surreal Joke’, the speaker’s defence against the assumption that surrealism and comedy may be read and positioned as antithetical to ‘truth’ or ‘seriousness’ seems like an assertion that it is possible to write truthfully without granting the reader access to one’s private reality. Or, as Bird herself puts it in the video above, ‘this poem is true but contains no facts’.

The variety of dramatic shapes Bird’s poems take is impressive; with few exceptions, the poems in In These Days of Prohibition wrong-foot the reader, pushing the poem into unexpected places, recontextualising or destabilising everything that went before. ‘Sentinel of Anything’, for example, begins:

‘I am guarding this sofa with my life         my nights
are long                but I do not sleep             Roger    Copy that
Over      4:08 AM a suspicious beep          4:11 AM Beep
has not returned              4:22 AM               think I imagined beep’

The poem drifts between grim comedy and outright anxiety; the first line signals that all is not well, that an unseen other is interfering with the scene, the speaker is unable to confirm their reality. The set-up is silly, the speaker’s determination and sense of duty wildly out of synch with ‘a suspicious beep’ and the bedsit which ‘smells / of lemons    Is this suspect?’ Ordinarily this would play out by leaning into the disproportion, but ‘Sentinel of Anything’ maintains its tension by not quite delivering the big laugh the opening ostensibly promises. Lines like, ‘These items are now under / my protection   I solemnly vow to keep them safe / If needs be I’ll die’, do nothing to dispel the idea that the speaker is not performing, that this is not another ‘surreal joke’. Their unprompted will to self-destruction begins to feel horribly real. The speaker’s various threads of thought become tangled and confused, and the close, ‘what matters is / I am true to my word     over    6:55 was me breathing’ take on a terrible literalness, the speaker not waving, but drowning.

Then, there’s a majestic work of beauty like ‘Beatification’, whose first line runs: ‘My father was a hundred and five years old when he discovered the pleasures of crystal meth’. The poem plays out the way ‘Sentinel of Anything’ does not, pushing the premise toward exaggeration, as the centenarian finally enjoys his body and sexuality without compromise. The only reference to the past is his reminiscence of a youthful courtship: ‘Those days were clogged with woollen tights and shame’; though the book to this point has been doused in a creeping sense of wrongdoing and guilt, this is the first time ‘shame’ has been explicitly articulated, the first of three instances in the book, one in each section. This seems like more than coincidence, and I’d argue that the collection’s three-act structure is built around processing socially-inscribed guilt and making tentative steps toward accepting oneself as worthy of love, both by the self and by others. Of course, this could be over-emphasising one aspect of a collection that is at least as concerned with its boisterous, breathless poem-by-poem action as it is with sustaining a dramatic arc. In any case, ‘Beatification’ is on one hand a beautifully committed scene of sexual comedy, as the speaker’s father describes his new business plan: ‘Bondage. Water Sports. Sadomasochism. People will pay good money to lick the toilet seat of a silver fox’. On the other, the poem is weirdly touching:

‘‘But you’re a hundred and five years old…’ He sunk in his sweater. ‘…Which is all the more reason’, I added, ‘not to waste another minute.’’

The timing is glorious, but if the poem enacts a struggle between humour and pathos, the latter ultimately wins out. As the speaker attempts to bring her father normal pensioner things – ‘the Radio Times and that John le Carre audiobook you asked for’ – he is lost in the embrace of a bodybuilder: ‘He wasn’t coming down again. Not for anyone. He was with the angels now.’ Like ‘Sentinel of Anything’, these lines push the reader just a hair back from the poem’s basic conceit, the closing sentence’s overfamiliarity made strange by its unique surroundings. The poem’s closure is a dramatic opening.

Though the book’s three sections aren’t explicitly tied to any one theme, there are dominant notes in each; where the first seems mostly concerned with mental wellbeing, the second explores romantic intimacy, though guilt and the unreliability of the perceiving self are present in both. ‘To Be Explicit’ and ‘Adultery for Atheists’ face each other on opposing pages, and might well be companion pieces. Both are short-lined, comprised of a relentless single sentence at a high emotional pitch, and where the former seems to outline the speaker’s desire for a fast, intense, but ultimately doomed encounter (‘pocket just one / souvenir feather and / leave you in peace.’), the latter is consumed with guilt, quite possibly from the explicit desires of its partner-poem. It spills from line to line with wry, self-chastising irony and anger:

‘[It’s lucky I] know of no
rational reason to carry these
pellets in my heart absorbing
shame like tampons somehow
expanding inside me’

The poem ends with another characteristically stylish dramatic turn. Where the speech up until this point inhabited the conceptual nowhere of lyric thought, the last few lines bring it back to the abruptly unsettled, physical here and now:

‘[what luck to be so unperturbed by] this
very peculiar black cat sitting
on my bed after midnight just
staring at me calmly.’

One thing I’m noticing by analysing Bird’s poems is how difficult they are to quote in chunks, how they demand to sit in context with the entire piece. For all the pinpoint execution of the conceit, the beautifully disorienting hyperreality and the tonal humour, the poems in this middle section are laced with what feels like self-loathing, barely being held beneath the surface. There is a nightmarish bite to these pieces, and the free reign Bird gives to these self-destructive voices made my heart hurt.

All of which makes the tentatively hopeful notes, the air of calm, in the final act a hard-won pleasure. It’s introduced by an epigraph from James Tate: ‘But we still believe we will come through it! / I signal this news / by lifting a little finger’. Tate’s wry rejection or deflation of uncomplicated belief is an apt tone for a series of poems whose victories are often small, compromised and precarious. The first, ‘Public Resource’, is a brief inquiry into social expectations about survivor narratives:

‘There is a place called The Open
where brave people put things.’

‘Public Resource’ argues, gently and with great humour, that a public impulse (or ‘hunger’, in the poem’s terms) for uplifting stories from brave strangers does not reflect the inner reality experienced by survivors themselves. As Bird puts it:

‘The will be no rising
smoke, after-odour, no bell-ringer […]
no consequence unless
you dive in with it.’

Like Tate’s own muted celebration, the poem seems to recognise that the reward for ‘coming through’ is little more than the opportunity to raise a little finger in acknowledgement and keep going, the endless hunger of The Open be damned. The section is also marked by its several attempts to render something approaching, if not self-love, then self-kindness or acceptance, however hedged it might be. ‘Megan Married Herself’ has no business being as moving and heartfelt as it is, conveying real breath-catching joy through a situation that is patently absurd:

‘She strode down the aisle to ‘At Last’ by Etta James,
faced the celebrant like a keen soldier reporting for duty,
her voice shaky yet sure. I do. I do.’

The jokes are spot-on, beautifully timed and pitched, but the poem creates an inner, emotional space in which Megan’s marriage is worthy of dignity, celebration, delight. The poem knows exactly where the line is between vanity and social-norm-rejecting comfort in one’s own being, and leans heavily into the latter. Given all that’s gone before in In These Days of Prohibition, the guilt and inward-facing castigation that pushes down on much of the collection, ‘Megan Married Herself’ is a remarkable break, a small sunburst.

Though a few poems, particularly in this last section, don’t have the same emotional fizz as the best in the book (several of which I haven’t discussed here; a good half dozen are straight on my dream-anthology longlist), when a poem’s dramatic argument is not quite up to Bird’s usual standard it is still buoyed by dynamic associative play, a serious glee in its weird logical leaps. When everything comes together, as in ‘A Toddler Creates Thunder by Dancing on a Manhole’, it’s a wonder to behold. The poem’s energy is in a league of its own, and embodies everything that makes In These Days of Prohibition the beautiful, essentially optimistic work it is. ‘A Toddler…’ is unusual in the collection for its positioning the poet-figure as a visible observer, neither the poem’s focal point or wholly moved to the sidelines. The speaker exists as a kind of foil to the toddler, who is one of a pair of twins operating as a performer-audience or active-self/critical-self partnership, carrying with them a childlike purity of thought and action (‘Toddlers always dance like marionettes, / their brains still learning the strings’) that clearly leaves a mark on the in-poem poet:

‘the tiny dancer is a celebrity, applauded
by her own mirror image. […] I pick up my phone, type
‘I’m sorry’ then delete it.’

Taken in its own local context, the poem reads very much like a real-life anecdote, but in relation to an entire book in which real-life has been held at arm’s length, the metaphorical potential the poem has, in terms of its discussions of how one encounters one’s self, is deceptively hefty. This, I think, is what Bird does best, presenting difficult and quietly unsettling ideas about surviving in a world hostile to your wellbeing, but in terms which at first glance seem works of entertainment first and foremost. It’s a pretty old-timey word, but I think ‘parable’ is the one that fits best. Bird’s finest work marries the mundane, granular stuff of daily coping strategies with the kind of imaginative situation that stays long in the memory.

Further Reading: Interview in the Evening Standard

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