Ghosts over the Lawn
Birds with a Broken Wing Adam Thorpe Jonathan Cape, UK, 2007, £9.00
ADAM THORPE EXPLORES A keen sense of history and its relationship to the modern world. Sometimes he celebrates the continuities of our past and present identities; sometimes, as in ‘In Tescos’, he suggests we have lost something crucial. I found this poem memorable for its sentiments, as well as for the descriptions of apples: those in the supermarket photographed for their “blush, for green, for blush on green” and those Thorpe remembers as “scrunchlings…wrinkled as bollocks” on the verge. In the first is the promise of supermarkets; in the second, praise for windfalls. But in the ‘perfection’ of supermarket produce, we have lost the living world.
Loss is also evident in the natural world and light. The modern world has lost continuities that proffer meaning and identity; we leave instead: “a skein of gizmos…a retaliatory stain of medicines instead of ghosts”. When a mobile phone rings and fades at Drombeg Stone Circle, it is as if “they had caught word of something dreadful that only the wise might know how to neutralise…”
Birds with a Broken Wing is aptly named because the poems also chart the broken: the paradoxical pact of ‘flight’ (we can do anything) with our sobering mortality. In ‘Defeat’ Thorpe presents us with public school boys in “a London caff”, where the height of aspiration is fuelled by an “intellect seared with passion”. Gradually, however, we realise that ‘flight’ becomes a suicidal leap – from a Deptford warehouse which, as Thorpe conversationally puts it, was “high enough to matter, of course”. Death is described here with the volume’s characteristically moving understatement; the poem’s final simile delicately evokes youth, glamour, fame, all the potential of another kind of ‘flight’ which a film star “might look shyly back on, yet grieve for”.
The power of the understatement resonates throughout Birds with a Broken Wing. It is skilfully employed in three very poignant poems about the death of the poet’s mother. A short poem titled ‘Ansaphone’ conveys the desperation of the living to hear again the voice of a loved one, whilst simultaneously hinting at the way our modern world may fail us. ‘On Her Blindness’ leaves us with an ironic residue of Christianity: that the dead somehow watch over us; whilst the self-accusations that often accompany mourning are movingly evoked in ‘Hands’.
This poem begins with a somewhat comical couple, but ‘Hands’ ends without the ‘holding’ rhymes that mark many of these poems and, consequently, the sense of loss is underscored. Everything, for Thorpe, is the wrong way round: “like the dying comforting the alive”. The simplicity of holding hands communicates love, tenderness, regret – all that is implied by hands left ‘unheld’.
Understatement also works effectively in ‘Dublo’ and ‘Nimes’. In ‘Dublo’ a young man shoots a check-out girl. The attention to “our friend’s, friend’s small twins | freckled by it in the queue” ends the poem with our sense of horror controlled, but powerfully released. Likewise, in ‘Nimes’, a dinner interrupted by a shooting shows sudden violence repressed in a photograph which reveals only “a spatter of blood like a leak of oil” and the pansies in a window box “elbowed” flat by curiosity. Skilful, close observation that contains overwhelming feeling works extremely effectively, too, in the final simile of ‘Holiday Inn, Beirut 1978’, where corridors are “filled with the dead like collected sheets”. Other traumatic experiences described in equally arresting language and images sustain Birds with a Broken Wing’s distinctive power.
In ‘Light Pollution’ Thorpe gives us a lyrical panegyric to natural light and dark. Light in the modern world is not “unseen fields…in the darkness of air” but a car park lit by an “insomniac motorway”. This is not memory, nor spiritual insight; rather it is light as “caffeine, as cocaine”. Thorpe notes: “we will pay in kind for our blindness…” and the poem moves, surprisingly, to a celebration of a remembered England which is also prospective: “the night sky healed from its bruise of sodium…the stars considerable again”.
I highly recommend Birds with a Broken Wing as a volume of tautly measured, linguistically vital poems which weave the painful and disturbing with redemptive, healing energies. These poems tie us to history, to the natural world and to the sacred dark, where our own ghosts may “pass over the lawn.”