The Shape of a Tulip Bird
Available from the publisher
Clare Song Bird
There are many poetry collections that deal exclusively in loss and grief. Usually they reflect on the life lived, eulogising the person lost, as well as examining the impact their death has on loved ones. Christopher Hopkins’ The Shape of a Tulip Bird reflects on a life not yet begun, so it feeds more on imaginative musings, the never will be, not the used to be: the loss of a future more than a past. It considers the effects of a miscarriage on the couple who suffer it, and their immediate family: the weight of such a loss upon two lives and their connection. How they bear their suffering, separately and together; then, crucially, how they start to recover from it.
It isn’t an easy read. Hopkins is an extremely accomplished, interesting poet, but still I had to steel myself to pick up this book. Probably it isn’t meant to be read at one sitting. Instead it’s something to dip into, to look to for consolation, or empathy, when suffering loss oneself. There are moments the book feels almost too unbearably painful to be withstood. But then the next poem offers some comfort, slight hope, philosophical musing, to pull you through. Indeed, all of grief is represented here – denial, rage, despair, and ultimately, acceptance.
It’s a heavy theme which speaks of heavy outcomes. “How do we navigate eternity?” it asks in Ancestors, “for our roots to tangle/and pull us into history,/aside from the knot of blood?/What art have I, apart from love.” Hopkins considers the dead as museum pieces, or compost, irrelevant relics: “while the pinned winged bugs/lament their century’s end….Wire songbirds wait for me/in the next cabinet along.” Away, a beautiful, terse piece, considers life from the other end of the spectrum. Here Hopkins addresses us as if from a womb, the cushioning, cocooning swaddling of grief: “From the warmest room/we think about life outside/for the first time in months….feeling the footling sting/of a different wind, taking everything/from the tear,/back to nothing but our salt.”
Inevitably, in a collection written entirely on one theme, some poems will prove more affecting than others, more resonant, relevant to the reader. But there’s no need to treat this book delicately on account of the level of grief it contains. Hopkins is more than good enough not to pass muster simply on sympathy. This is a genuinely impressive collection.
Reading a poem such as My Language has run out of Broken Bones, reflecting on the gradual, painful possibility of acceptance (“This must be the place” it comments “where the world comes to grow old”) made me sit back wide-eyed and reflect. As did Prelude to Night Swimming – this is a meditation on water as well as grief – with its glorious “It was as bright and wild/as the madness of love for my closest stranger”, telling of a rainstorm over the sea: “A shock to the black, acid crack and air cracking,/with thrones of clouds/rolling closer and closer -“
Of particular interest is the poem Inside the Tear, in which an older woman’s ability to see a picture beyond the tragedy calls forth the only moment of rage in the book: “I should pull myself up on the withers of some fucking horse”, he spits, the words emboldened, spaced out, staccato. This allows us to question, intentionally, I’m sure, whether the poet isn’t allowing himself to luxuriate in grief, and should instead start to look beyond the tragedy, to the future. Not a question that’s easily answered, but I’m impressed to see it raised, and the reader given the opportunity to consider that possibility.
There are plenty of poems here that don’t deal directly in loss. Often these involve the sea, and many of them (Otter’s back, the Weather Bell) resolve in such a way as to speak of healing, recovery, if only a glimmer; it’s a welcome introduction of hope for the reader. Yet death is always the motif, and anyone who’s lived by the sea will feel the truth of this line in Metal & Salt:
“The air is eating
at us all,
all point the same way.”
As they do at sunset.