New Poetry, Fiction, Essays

Jane Simmons continues her series of reviews of contemporary poetry by women poets. Karen McCarthy Woolf: An Aviary of Small Birds

Jane Simmons is a retired teacher/lecturer who is now studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. She has written several short stories and is currently working on her second novel and a collection of poetry. She is a member of the Lincoln-based Pimento poets and Outspoken Poets and regularly reads/performs her work in the Lincoln area. Although her main interests are poetry and prose fiction, she has written a short play which is to be published and performed in summer 2018.  Jane says she does not know how she ever found the time to go to work. Jane lives with her husband in a village outside Lincoln. They have one daughter – who is a vet, and Jane’s number one reader.



Jane Simmons continues her series of reviews of contemporary poetry by women poets.


Karen McCarthy Woolf: An Aviary of Small Birds

Carcanet Press

ISBN: 978 1 90618 814 6






Karen McCarthy Woolf was born in London to an English mother and a Jamaican father. She is the recipient of the Kate Betts Memorial Prize and an Arts and Humanities Research Council scholarship from Royal Holloway, where she is a PhD candidate. Described in The Poetry Review as ‘extraordinarily moving and technically flawless’, her celebrated début An Aviary of Small Birds was shortlisted for the 2015 Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection and the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize, as well as being a Guardian Book of the Year and a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Her latest collection Seasonal Disturbances (2017) is a PBS Recommendation and was described by Young Poet Laureate for London, Warsan Shire, as ‘a strange and stunning collection from a true writer.’ Karen is the editor of three literary anthologies, most recently Ten: The New Wave (Bloodaxe, 2014), and her poetry has been published in Poetry Review and Modern Poetry in Translation among others. She has presented her poetry in many forms, from collaborative choreography and radio soundscape to audiovisual installation, in venues around the world, from Mexico City and Singapore to the US and the Caribbean.

Awards won by Karen McCarthy Woolf

Commended, 2017 Poetry Book Society Recommendation. (Seasonal Disturbances )Short-listed, 2015 Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize (An Aviary of Small Birds)Short-listed, 2015 Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection (An Aviary of Small Birds)



Karen McCarthy Woolf’s An Aviary of Small Birds is about a tragic event– the stillbirth of her son, Otto, in August 2009, and it is a collection that can, with the exception of only a few of poems, be read as a narrative. However, there is nothing chronological about McCarthy Woolf’s approach to telling this intensely emotional personal story. The first poem in the collection is titled Undertaker but we do not yet know who has died. In the third poem, there is a reference to a room where my baby dies but it is not until the fifth poem, Mort-Dieu, that the reader discovers more:

Our son
dear God
is dead
and gone.
His tomb
was red
with blood
and warm
as tears.
He was
born still.
Was this
dear God
your will?

The facts are filled out in the later piece, Of August, in which a student on her way back from a writers’ conference writes a synopsis of a novel which she intends to pitch to an agent:

Unfortunately, the birth does not go as expected and the baby dies during a long labour on the 7th of August

The poems continue to move backwards and forwards in time throughout the collection, just as grief is not linear, so too the book follows an emotional rather than a chronological arc. This non-chronological ordering of the poems can also be seen as a representation of the mind attempting to make sense of what has happened, unable to dwell on any of the painful details for any significant length of time.

In Missing, McCarthy Woolf writes:

Every day I wake up and remember

your future is missing

and goes on to tell how she searches for a glimpse of her lost child, hoping somehow to find him:

So I scour the alleys, pause outside a school.

Is that you strapped to a stranger’s chest,

the one in the blue-for-boy sling?

Although she knows the search is futile, she still hopes for the impossible, you never know. These imagined glimpses, false-sightings, will be familiar to anyone who has experienced grief. That brief poem Mort-Dieu which begins like a prayer but ends in a restrained protest and the stark, impersonal Of August, written in the third person, also give an idea of the wide range of poetic voices used in the collection. Remarkably, these voices are never self-pitying or sentimental.

The natural world features largely in the collection, not only in the titles and subjects of the poems – the seasons and the months, planets and stars, the weather, animals, birds, insects, and flowers – but also in their language and imagery. Winged creatures, both birds and insects, appear again and again, beginning with the poem Wing which describes a bird’s wing which the poet finds on a country walk:

Your knuckle of raw bone

and streak of claw-white quills

torn from the socket

The wing seems to represent the poet’s brutal experience – an idea which is reinforced by the use of the empathic address dear Wing.

When her child is still-born, McCarthy Woolf feels as if skewered by a lepidopterist and describes herself as like a moth battering a paper lantern. In White Butterflies, the poet makes a mourning wreath of whiteness through references to white flowers: white lilies, white lavender, white hydrangeas, before references to white tissues, white linen, white curtains, white muslin squares. The poem ends with the reference to your tiny white vests, followed by the painfully poignant single word unworn.

Ultimately, it is the poet’s connection with nature – and birds in particular – that helps her to survive her grief and honour her still-born son, Otto.  The title poem An Aviary of Small Birds is filled with the idea of a life that lasts a moment quick as the light that/ constitutes your spirit:

My love is an aviary
of small birds
and I must learn
to leave the door ajar…

Are you the sparrow
who landed when I sat
at a slate table
sowing lettuces?

Webbs Wonder, Lollo
Rosso, English Cos…
Swift and deft
you flit and peck peck

quick as the light that
constitutes your spirit.
Yes, you were briefer
than Neruda’s octobrine

So much rain that night.
Our room is an ocean
where swallows dive.
The bubble bursts

too soon, too late, too long:
all sorts of microscopia
swim upstream, float in
on summer’s storm.

The tenor of your heart
is true as a tuning fork struck
—and high! My love
is the bird who flies free.

The severed wing of the earlier poem has been replaced by the bird who flies free.


Karen McCarthy Woolf will be one of the tutors on

The Arvon Foundation course no.36 Editing Poetry – developing poetic notes.

The course will take place from March 19th-March 24th 2018 at Totleigh Barton.








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Jane Simmons is a retired teacher/lecturer who is now studying…