Poetry review: 21/11/19
THE SHAPE OF A TULIP BIRD
by Christopher Hopkins
Our reviewer finds this collection about loss to be profound, poignant and compelling.
Christopher Hopkins sets out the premise of The Shape of a Tulip Bird in the poem, ‘Navigator’, ‘shadow and light playing by your side in a dance of two.’ This is the story of two people, bearing the body-breaking weight of the tiny third person between them.
Hearts. Poets have the most loving, pained ones, wear them on their proverbial sleeves. Poets mine the depths and heights of human experience, and here, Hopkins reveals how a couple’s heart has been bled out. With three stellar books in three years, he is certainly not ‘Sick, Thick and Lazy,’ the opening poem in his second book, The Last Time we saw Strangers. Therein, the heart is removed and planted. The Shape of a Tulip Bird is perhaps the one that should have been second, but he had to walk many a shoreline before he could go back and take the heart out of the earth.
The first poem tells us that there is a fist where the heart should be, and worse – the premise of the whole book – there is the ‘absent echoes of an unborn heart.’ In the everything of silence in The Last Time we saw Strangers, he wished their lives so very far away. The new book seems to do just that: takes them from where they were before the second book. From ‘Chemistry in Old Photographs’ in that book, he knows ‘where the blood goes’ and he talks of the ‘ache of love in our pasts.’
This third book must have been a difficult book to write, not least because it is wrought from broken hearts, but because it also charts the journeys of two characters. This is a relationship under scrutiny. That which is behind closed doors being made public, its unflinching detail and raw truth as ragged as some of the landscapes that shape the book. There is a simple story arc with complex character development throughout, an exploration of deep grief, disconnection and re-connection.
This is life with all the layers of skin peeled right back. Set against bleak landscapes, the fumbling for change in car parks, idiots queuing, magpies prophesying and accusing them, stops this being a sentimental trail. It brings home, on the wings of many birds, the harsh lights, paper towels, crisp staff, the cold empty screens of it all. ‘On this tarmac ground, I flinch with every remembrance.’ The grief is isolating, all consuming, ‘no one else dare pass, no one else will grieve’. They are stuck in time, rooted in grief. Despite love, a river of red separates them.
Birds! Birds are everywhere, like vultures at the scene of death, ever present, ever watching, cutting their way through the book. He blames the stars, the ambiguity subtle, ‘the heavenly bodies are without spines, without warmth.’ In the title poem he declares ‘this is my abiding silence.’ Quietness is revealed but also a public promise to lay the child and grief to rest, and to resurrect hope. He is not writing this to be risqué or cool, ‘mansplaining’ or feminist but to honour the child and write his way to peace. He does not spare the male character, paints him in stark and true colours. It is a book to celebrate the female character whom he recognises displays the greater strength. Hopkins makes no apologies for the male and recognises that he cannot speak for the female character only try to imagine and inhabit her emotional space.
‘I’ll bleed you out like a rose breaking,’ ‘why did this child stop becoming itself?’ these are the lines that speak to me the most. It seems so incongruent that beauty can just halt. A ‘Portrait in Starlight’ breaks me, where she smells her own phantom milk, where she only sees white marble, rocked by notions of god and well meaning. She has such compassion even as she declares ‘You are nothing but pitie’s drunk’, in ‘My Dear Night Beside You’, and the male character in ‘Debris’ recognises himself adrift on his little boat of oblivion.
The wings, the shape of a tulip bird, like ‘praying hands shape a hollow heart’ contrasting with ‘Inside the Tear’ where the grandmother’s wing was so thin the light passed through. Weary, the only refuge shut, there was no landing place. What is motherhood, fatherhood? There is desperate loneliness in those word, ‘she did not understand me.’ Loss is multiplied and he/she is an island.
In ‘Hospital’, the form is fractured to conjure the different voices, the disorientation and confusion. This opens the way for us to see that the poems are either from the male perspective or the female, deliberately not identified, but certainly identifiable, and the experiences can be genderless. Some so lonely and raw, and hers, alone – a woman on the stairs, bleeding, awaiting her husband to come home as red sunlight bleeds through the stained glass. Does pain get any sharper than this? Did a poem ever speak so much truth?
Blood creates a river too vast to cross as Hopkins declares that ‘it is the living who can’t find their way.’ The book charts the road from loss and alienation to healing and hope for the characters as individuals and as a couple.
We see the loss of an imagined future when the male protagonist declares that ‘in my heart is a failed city’. We feel the hardness of being, of carrying on, as we trudge with them over wet sands and slippery rocks to an altered vision of the future.
In ‘Away’ we see that pivotal moment, of hope of escape with stars in their pockets. In ‘Arrival, they see land draw in, ‘came in with the herring’. In the early light they start to heal: ‘this was the first day you were not the first idea.’ Even in the healing as they walk on rocks and take tentative steps, it is there, a dead seabird, a stomach full of death. Life throws up its metaphors to remind them of loss. They begin to see death as part of the circle of life.
In ‘White Feather’ a daughter is born and there is restoration. ‘I’ll be the happy drunk’ juxtaposes with the way others may have viewed the male: ‘the light changes but the drink doesn't.’ ‘White Feather’ contrasts with ‘Hospital’ where the male character sees the father who will ‘give her away.’ Now he has his own daughter in his arms. The book’s form is circular, picks up the stitches dropped in the first half, restores them, put things back in their rightful places, make resigned peace. Eventually they walk in one set of footsteps. Hopkins reveals of his characters that ‘what was lost was not replaced or forgotten but we were remembering ourselves, our scars loved each other.’In the exquisite ‘Portrait to Starlight’, the female says there was no one to blame. God is a god of too many things and with so many plates to spin, they are reconciled to, and forgiving god.
When Hopkins says his language has run out of broken bones, he borrows ours and breaks us.
These poetry portals immerse us into a couple’s life. The pace is slow and musical, unrushed, the images jagged and bright. You may get cut very deeply on these rocks. In the mirror of their losses you may see your own. This book may help you put your own heart back, however it was broken, wherever it was lost or buried. It is ultimately a book of love. There is no where to hide and no stone is unturned. Nothing is deemed to raw or too private to expose. There is no covering up, no wings to hide faces. This is human frailty in its beauty and ugliness: the soaring resilience of the human spirit. You will not find another poetry book that deals with the loss of a child in utero in such a profound and poignant way. This is a beautifully crafted poetry book where each poem is complete within itself but holds hands with all the rest to tell a compelling story.
Review: Angela Dye.
Christopher Hopkins – The Shape of a Tulip Bird
Clare Songbirds Publishing House