The collection starts on an affirmative, “Feeling the Fear”, a nod to Susan Jeffers’ book and a reminder that a cautious life is a life half-lived.
“For none can tell you the forces at play
when admonitory hoopoe screams.
You ask my advice but what can I say?
Just feel the fear and do it anyway.”
The title poem is the second mention of a hoopoe where an old man is visited by one, both man and bird wind up staring at each other,
“The eyes of one are stoical,
but lit by a sense
that all is not determined.
The other’s are steeled,
impenetrable – the maligned
harbinger of spring
or a bird whose piping
is like a final summons.”
It too has a note of daring: does the old man wait for death or embrace the spring, even if it could be his last. The imagery of the hope’s bright colours suggest grabbing spring. Similarly, “Soul”, offers a weekend escape from the mundane blue collar job.
“Travelling miles by train each
weekend with a change of clothes
and a box of classic tracks
– minor hits and rarities
by blacks the charts ignored –
they kept the faith
and stormed the bouncers
– who lost their cool and didn’t get it –
once the doors were opened
to another drenched all-nighter
at Wigan Casino, the Highland Room,
the Golden Torch, the Wheel.”
There’s a ten poem sequence, “From Middlesbrough to Mosel”, inspired by the life a Gertrude Bell. in “3. Father and Daughter”,
“From each obscure staging post
in far-flung Arabia, she will send
her soothing letters. Newsy, wicked,
full of fun, they’ll speak of all the things
he can bear to know.”
There’s a rebellious nature to her, a gift for storytelling but also an awareness of her audience. A woman who was also a free spirit in a restrictive society was in danger, although she was never going to tell her father and cause unnecessary worry.
The final poem, “Man on a Wire” is a perfect summary of the balancing act within these poems. Where the man’s muscles are
“braced and quivering like the wire itself
which, at a distance, was no more
than a filament, but close up
was a hawser along which he took
illicit steps, knowing his future
weighed upon them and all things
were simple, once the choice was made,”
“Staring at a Hoopoe” understands the tensions between seeking security and seeking out new experiences. Each poem balances idea and expression, showing an understanding and deft handling of craft.
Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection.