Review of Iris Murdoch’s poems, A Year of Birds

I’m not sure of ‘Behind the plough their kite tail’ of seagulls in January unless its heaviness is to add lift to the next line, ‘Or ride transparent in the sky.’  The repeated ‘in the sky’ is perhaps one too many even if ‘ai’ and ‘cry’ are also repeated, so probably deliberately, but more closely.

February is preferable with ‘Chat-chat they cry and stay,/ They to work fly away,’ to convey the sudden unanimous change of decision rooks make, in appropriately shorter lines.

In March, ‘does the spring/ Now in your thoughtless blood so soon declare/ That love is pain?’ is just a tad too anthropomorphic for me though led to by the complain of collared doves, a fair enough description of their sound, and preceded by the stain of violets.  ‘Oh pretty lovers,’ directed at the pigeons, might in any case indicate poetic tongue in cheek.

More anthropomorphism in the next poem where ‘swallows’ is shoved in to give a rhyme for ‘follows’.  ‘Rosy and yellow the April willow’, with its internal rhyme, is also shoved in with seeming distraction while providing a description of the background to the moorhen’s ‘peer about and start’ to divert the reader’s eye and add to the effect of ‘Pain in the heart’.

Cricketers and cuckoo are combined by their calls.  She adds buds of May concealing the rose perhaps, that the last line ‘Hollow as a flute that cry across the field’ may not just be men and bird but flower too.

The magpie is from a picture flying on a sculpted entablature from which likeness to art she turns to make a general observation on the length of a midsummer day before most specifically settling her vision on the nearer roses and inquisitive intellect on their arch of ‘clambering bees.’

The blackbird looks mechanical in its agitated digging and glancing until ‘Quiet now yellow beak motionlessly listening’, she captures its soul in July.

‘A portent perched in air’ is the kestrel, arresting the August traveller with its ‘moveless flutter’ and fragility, recalling his to him perhaps on a highway to death, and I don’t think.

The skies less blue, the nights colder, the days still long but less warm in the evening, but somehow it’s the wren moving like a mouse that reminds us autumn has already come.

I’m trying to work out if the red tree beside which the swan spreads a wing is or can be a rosebush whose hips are also reflected in the scarcely moving October water when I’m presented with ‘Where the bird’s sudden movement has made no sound.’  Of course the swan’s movement has made no sound in the stream, reflected by it.  Oh, the swan’s on it, beside the …tree, which does then have to be a rosebush, so the ‘where’ is correct.  You’d have no problem with it.  The poem doesn’t rhyme.  It dances along on trisyllabic feet.

‘When flies the stooping owl over’ makes me shudder at ‘owl over’, never mind the paws of shrewmice when the stooping owl flies over.  She’s using assonance when ‘shud’ and ‘o’ aren’t that close and depend on the following schwas, ‘der’ and ‘ver’, closer but of course unstressed and of a weak, any old vowel sound.  ‘Stir’ at the end of the next line is stressed, doesn’t, can’t rhyme with the ‘er’s but with the vowel and the consonant does carry on something of the assonance, and ‘stir’ does make assonance with the last word of the last line, ‘In feathers sleeps the fur.’  What, however, does that mean!  It’s double metonymy, for owl and mouse respectively while the alliteration provides additional connection but the shrew the owl hopes to stir into telltale motion is already awake if its paws are shuddering.  The dormouse sleeps in the owl until pounced awake, the idea realised.

She has a thing about Christ, though not as god, and for December has the hawberries ‘drip like blood’, eye-rhyming that with ‘wood’ in the next line.  It is no accident then the bracken’s broken and ‘Christ has come again to heal and pardon.’  What presumption!  She femininely rhymes ‘pardon’ with the next line’s ‘garden’ where a robin follows her, his breast of course ‘like a rose’ to rhyme with an earlier ‘snows’ but also to evoke Christ’s bleeding I’ll be bound.

The poems are to a dead friend’s engravings.

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About johnbrucecairns

I'm a retired history teacher who's written for most of his life with a book readied for publication.
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