A Massacre of Hummingbirds, Paul Blake
Stonewood Press, 2016 £4.99
Poems about the hidden corners of our lives, the taken-for-granted unwritten elements of everyday, can surprise us. This title leapt out from the Contents page of Paul Blake’s debut collection, reminding me of a nugget of information I’d mislaid. Schwa? – I used to know. In a collection threaded through with examinations of language – ‘People say it can’t be trusted – / language, that silvery disease’ (from ‘Lex(is)’) – it proved a good starting point. The poem opens gently –
Here is its sign – ə – an e doing handstands,
because although we say it with every breath
it does not have a letter in my language.
There’s a lightness of tone here: that ‘e doing handstands’ is playful, visual, while the opening ‘Here is its sign …’ has the calm tone of a teacher introducing the alphabet. This is reassuring: I can trust this poem to take me forward. So, to the next stanza, where the subject expands:
The sound of hesitation, uncertain, diffident,
creeping between the consonants like a cat
weaving between legs.
The idea of its soft sigh, allied to a cat’s domestic habits, explains its raison-d’être: a small nervous sound ‘… helping / things to flow.’ The poem could stop there, if all it wanted to do was plug the gap in my memory. But it doesn’t. The poem asks for my involvement in ‘…this sigh we make, / the body’s opening to the wide world of air.’ And, then, it is joyful:
Yet surely something should do handstands,
at the sweetness of breath, that necessary
lovely thing, so rarely noticed when we
are at our ease, when every breath flows
freely. Something that remembers soul –
Ah, soul. This poem has travelled a long way from ə, that symbol I had to track down online before I could write about it. Blake knows how to build poems: this collection shows his skill.
It’s a beautifully produced book, too, typical of Stonewood Press. Don’t be alarmed by the title – it’s a metaphor. No humming birds were harmed in the making of this collection.