On reading Karen McCarthy Woolf

This is not a review. This is a short piece about spending eight hours on trains last week, getting to and from a reading, and having uninterrupted time to open several neglected books, including Karen McCarthy Woolf’s An Aviary of Small Birds.

The collection, about the poet’s stillborn son, is something I have been keen to read. For obvious reasons, some may say, and yes I was deeply curious to see how another poet and mother writes about the death of a child. By the sixth poem, and the ‘tiny white vests, unworn’ I was crying so much I had to put the book back in my bag. I was surprised to be upset. That may sound naive but I’ve got used to keeping myself together for Her Birth readings. I thought I could cope with the subject matter. Talking to poet Martin Figura once, about his performance of Whistle – a mesmerising, autobiographical piece about the death of his mother, we both agreed that keeping a boundary between how we felt about our experiences and what we revealed to the audience was essential. It would be detrimental for the audience to see us upset. He did make me laugh when he said, ‘Nobody wants to see that Rebecca.’ True.

But this time, reading An Aviary of Small Birds, I was in the audience. I did finish the book, later, at home, and at the end of it, I was thinking about the poet’s dead baby, not mine. I was immersed in McCarthy Woolf’s acute, sensory images. I was immersed in all the beauty she has been able to create. I was immersed in the water ‘…because it is a comfort,/this return to water, to the stream, to the earth;//the mindless torrent of the brook,’ (from ‘Hawk’).  It made me think of Robert Peake’s moving, elegiac pamphlet The Silence Teacher with its many watery images and scenes. I mentioned the connection between water and bereavement to Robert. ‘I suppose grief is fluid somehow’, was his response. The fluidity of McCarthy Woolf’s book carries us through her experience. Rivers ‘press, insinuate, overwhelm, insist, endure,’ and we are passengers, sometimes clinging to the sides, sometimes peering over the edge to look more closely.  There were harrowing parts:

‘Under Other requests or concerns:
hands, feet, face, hair – all must be left intact.
Brain restored to head, skin
stitched neatly and correctly.’

(from ‘The Paperwork’)

Harrowing yes, but it felt right to read them, because such experiences need to be exposed and discovered if we are to understand ‘difficult’ things. McCarthy Woolf’s poems have made me understand more about this very particular grief and its impact. There was a lot I could relate to, obviously, but the experience was so uniquely hers, the poems became illuminating. I may not have gained comfort from reading An Aviary of Small Birds, but what I did glean from its pages was knowledge.

 

Karen McCarthy Woolf will be appearing at The 2014 Aldeburgh Poetry Festival this weekend.

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2 thoughts on “On reading Karen McCarthy Woolf

  1. Rebecca, two poetry books have made me cry on buses recently, one of them was Her Birth. There’s no way I’m reading Karen’s book on public transport! (The other, btw, was Carrie Etter’s Imagined Sons which, in a different way again, is also about the loss of a child.)
    Jill

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