Review of ‘The Air Year’ by Caroline Bird

My Review of ‘The Air Year’ the new poetry collection (Carcanet) by Caroline Bird reproduced here, was also published in ‘The High Window’ in May 2020.

In her exhilarating how-to essay, ‘The Discipline of Getting Lost: On the Impossibility of Poems’ (in ‘Craft’, ed. R,Dastidar, Nine Arches Press, 2019), Caroline Bird advises poets to ‘Fling open the door of your first line’. ‘Write a first line,’ she instructs, ‘that thrusts you out, unprepared, into a world of your own making’. Her latest collection of poems, ‘The Air Year’ offers textbook examples of such first lines:

‘Nancy found an entire torpedo in the forest’ (Nancy and the Torpedo)
‘I think ‘so, this is death’ and wonder why’ (Checkout)
‘It’s like being a windmill in a vacuum’ (The Deadness)
‘The hotel was called Napthalene Heights’(Napthalene Heights)
‘I do kind gestures. Remove my appendix.’ (Sanity)
‘No-one dies here or chews their food properly’ (Loveborough)

What is an ‘Air Year’? Is it airy, airy-fairy, airless, full of hot air, airborne? Is it a breath of fresh air, up in the air, a pocket, a bubble of air? A time of coming up for air? The collection is all of these and more. As a reader, I was impelled to obsessive free association, to frequent raids on my dictionary, the poet’s baroque cascades of gorgeous, inventive, often preposterous imagery inviting me to join in the fun.

Yes, it is fantastic fun, but the abundance of invention is often manic. Far from being a flaw, however, the manic energy of language in these poems, so contagious for this reader, perfectly enacts the narrator’s chaotic emotional world.

The focus is on love: lacking it, longing for it, getting lost in it, losing it. Driven by ambivalence about her desires, the narrator is portrayed as an addict, sometimes drowning in the addiction, eventually in rehab, with intervals of recovery before some fresh relapse.

‘Mid-air’ the opening poem, finds her and her lover suspended ‘in amber’, ‘Our mouths
midway/across the same/inhalation like robbers mid-leap between/rooftops’. Almost every line break orchestrates this suspended state – air, in the poem, is a held breath. It’s a moment of suspense, of anticipation, yet also a moment of arrest, of stasis, ‘A note almost sung’ that fails to arrive at song, a moment of agonising hesitancy filled with longing, comically yet wistfully depicted: ‘Locked/in the amber of the and./We just want to land or/be landed on’.

In ‘Dive Bar’, we plunge into a kind of hell ‘down a steep flight/of stairs into a windowless cellar’ where ‘an ingénue in a smoking jacket/sits atop a piano/as a host of swaying women/sing “Your Secret’s Safe with Me”’, through a series of increasingly vertiginous descents: ‘down a steep flight/of throat into a windowless cell’, then ‘through a red breath down a dark/thought into a swallowed sense/with shrinking walls…as a host of silent passions/mouth “Your Secret is Yourself”/inside the belly of the world’. Here ‘dark clandestine places’ become ‘dark dissolving spaces’ in both the world and in the self, from which the ‘windowless woman’ manages to escape, perhaps in imagination only, by breaking/walls down in herself, sprinting/up the shrinking/halls and up contracting/corridors and up the choking/fits of hard stares through dark/thoughts and dead/laws’ till ‘you’re spat out/on the pavement with/the sun just/coming out’. A nightmarish coming out indeed.

In a later poem, ‘The Ground’, the motif of descent appears again as falling off a cliff and landing on what appears to be the safe ground of domestic normality, where ‘I can bake that lasagne now’, only to find the ground giving way before landing again where it might be possible to ‘buy a puppy’, or further down, perhaps to‘ put up a shelf. Make that baby’. When the ‘falling, landing, falling out’ stops, ‘You lie and let your bones heal…experiencing plateau…cold, hard, real, the opposite/of air. You shake like a prodigal astronaut./I could build a house on this, you think,/staggering off.’ Though conveying a nightmare instability and lack of security, this poem like many here, also manages a comic, even slapstick absurdity, laughing at its own horror, not callously, but with compassion.

Many of the poems are beautifully linked. ‘Urban Myth’ the prose poem which follows ‘The Ground’
is a good example, in which the theme of falling re-appears, this time in an anecdote of the WWII fighter plane which,‘riddled with bullets from enemy fire’, is kept in the air by the crew’s chewing ‘Wrigley’s peppermint gum…to bung the bullet holes’. The anecdote is ‘not a true story’ but provides a telling simile: ‘We played our love like that for a while…a patch-up job cobbled in mid-air…fighting fire with blobs of miscellaneous optimism…cork(ing) each new wound with a wad of sweètness freshly printed from the panic of our mouths.’ Here, one again, Bird the dramatic poet fuses comedy and tragedy in a poignant portrayal of fragile relationship.

Pile-ups of images throughout this book portray a fragmented reality so intense that it could be a relief to believe ‘We’re trapped inside a movie’. (Surrealism for Beginners). Yet with considerable pathos, its narrator insists that she and her much-craved lover are no poor players.

Bird’s extraordinary fecundity of language, on vivid display throughout the collection, is itself viewed reflexively in several poems. In ‘Speechless’ (which is also about what needs to be said but has been unsaid), ‘the words…wrapped in furs like Russian soldiers/vowels crammed like backpacks…syllables bent from all the shouldering’ leave the house ‘in their thinnest summer/jackets, despite the December cold…now they’re shameless on the air, naked as a tune/sung by a sated ghost’. In ‘Anaesthetic’ words give the narrator a fix to manage her love-craving. While with certain words are predictably soothing – ‘I love you./Boom! I’ll feel better for a whole entire day’, others, like ‘Lozenge./Any word./Lysol. Shellac. Ditto.’ also relieve the pain. If this suggests the writing of poems might sometimes begin as a therapy, we have to be grateful it leads to poems as satisfying and accomplished as ‘The Air Year’. This book has genuinely expanded my sense of what can be done in poetry. Please do fling open its door.

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