“Rookie: Selected Poems” Caroline Bird (Carcanet) – book review

Caroline Bird Rookie book cover

“Rookie” selects poems from Caroline Bird’s previous six collections, “Looking Through Letterboxes” (2002), “Trouble Came to the Turnip” (2006), “Watering Can” (2009), “The Hat-stand Union” (2012), “In these days of Prohibition” (2017) and “The Air Year” (2020). The last won the Forward Prize for Best Collection and she’s previously been shortlisted for The Polari Prize, the Costa Prize, the T S Eliot Prize, Ted Hughes Award, Geoffrey Dearmer Prize and has won an Eric Gregory Award and twice won the Foyle Young Poets Award and Dylan Thomas Prize. Bird was one of the five official poets at the 2012 London Olympics. The selections run chronologically.

Bird was still a teenager when “Looking Through Letterboxes” was published so understandably it looks at those awkward teenage years, when no longer a child but not yet an adult. “I know this because you told me” looks at some of the things parents tell children, particularly to gain compliance,

“You are not joking and only want to warn me. You are a good parent
and tell me life as it is, I know this because you told me.
If I fall in love at seventeen then it will not last.
If I eat too much I will explode and muck up your new shirt.

If I burp then I will blow myself inside out. The world
is quite a strange place and everyone is strange except you.
I know this because you told me.
If I take money from your wallet, it is called crime,

if you take money from my piggy bank, it is called borrowing.
If I never have a bath I will smell and people won’t walk
on the same side of the street as me,
but if I do then I’ll be sucked down the plughole. Some women shave.

I know this because you told me. The banister is for holding,
not for sliding down and you were never rude to your parents.
I will break my neck if I jump again from the top of these stairs
and no, I should not do it anyway.”

Already the speaker is testing the parent and knows some of the things she’s been told don’t add up. She knows she didn’t break her neck when she jumped down the stairs so naturally still doesn’t believe she will if she does it again despite her parent’s insistence at a hypothetical outcome. The parent has not yet recognised the child is no longer a child who believes everything a parent says and new strategies are needed.

Growing-up continues into “Trouble Came to the Turnip” which takes in operas, first loves, the trouble with lovers, that strange time of taking responsibility for one’s own life whether you feel ready to or not. Dolls at face value are childish things, playing with them is something to grow out of, but they make a useful metaphor for exploring how relationships might work. In “Relationship Dolls”, the speaker wants

“Dolls that won’t be patronised. Dolls
with revolving heads, dolls that will sit
on your pillow and watch you while you sleep.
Why would you buy such a doll?
Why spend your money, all your money,
on a doll like this? A doll that will drink
your gin, forbid you to touch other dolls,
a doll that will insist upon marriage,
a doll you can rest in the crook of your arm,
a lover you can legally drown.”

The plural “dolls” become singular as the speaker whittles down her relationship options to thinking about one person who takes money and effort and sharing and will want an exclusive relationship. The speaker is not ready for commitment. The unspoken question is how do you know this is the right person?

“Watering Can” is full of breezy, seemingly improbable stories. In “Last Tuesday”, a lost, perfect day is remembered and sought after as new days don’t fit the ideal,

“Hip counsellors in retro tweed jackets keep
telling me to look ahead. There’ll be other Tuesdays
to enjoy, they say, new Tuesday pastures. It’s a lie.
I found my Tuesday in someone else’s bed.
Its chops were caked in velvet gel and its voice
had corrupted. It pretended to be a Saturday
but I could see myself reflected in its eyes, a younger
me, tooting the breeze with a plastic trombone.
‘I’m sorry,’ said my Tuesday, pulling its hand out
of a woman, ‘I didn’t mean to let you down but
I couldn’t stay perfect forever, you were suffocating me.
Even sacred memories need to get their rocks off.’”

The perfect days knows the only way to get the speaker to move on is to sully the memory and remind her that memory is selective, remembering something as perfect when it wasn’t. It’s not just days that are looked back on with nostalgia, but also people and relationships. Getting back with an ex looks tempting when all you focus on is what worked in a relationship and why you split is deliberately forgotten or overlooked.

More stories follow in “The Hat-stand Union”. In “There Once was a Boy Named Bosh” which sounds like the opening to a lyric but here is a longer poem about a boy “who had a Shallow family”,

“Brother Shallow was all-the-way dead
and where’s his money? The Shallow girls
found Bosh mean and sexy when he got
blind with self-loathing. Mummy Shallow
said, ‘Why can’t you play football?’ because
she only cared about external achievements
and Daddy Shallow polished himself in his
dark Mercedes. ‘It’s like they are zombies,’
Bosh thought, ‘Who don’t have any blood:
eating their McDonald’s onion rings, telling
me they’re hurting too,’ so Bosh started
drinking lots and lots of beer and whisky
like an adult does when he loses something
big like a poker game or a piece of paper
with a number on it. ‘My Shallow family
are so Shallow,’ Bosh said, ‘they probably
wouldn’t notice if I was hung too’ and
Bosh was wrong about this, but Bosh put
a dressing gown cord round his neck as
Daddy Shallow watched American Beauty
downstairs and Sister Shallow swallowed
leeches in her bedroom to get skinny and
Mummy Shallow wrote in her pink leather diary.”

A dysfunctional family where the mother views her children as trophies to show off, taking the credit for their achievements. The father polishing his car so he can admire his reflection while the interior is darkened isn’t going to look beyond the surface to the mess underneath. Bosh’s “zombies” behave more like vampires. The film “American Beauty” is about a seemingly-perfect family who don’t notice they are falling apart with two parents barely talking to each other and seeking consolation elsewhere. Pink is not a natural colour for leather, so the mother’s diary is unlikely to be truthful.

So far, there’s also been a sense of evasion in “Rookie”. The poems are fun and use humour to make serious points but there’s a sense they are about other people and look outwards rather than inwards. This is picked up in “In these days of Prohibition” where a counsellor, in “A Surreal Joke”, poses a question,

“My assigned counsellor told me I used
poetry to hide from myself, unhook
the ballast from my life; a floating ruse
of surreal jokes. He stole my notebook.
I said, they’re not jokes. He said, maybe try
to write the simple truth? I said, why?”

The comic is not yet ready to become introspective. That’s a good thing though for the poems, although hints of more serious themes creep in, “Stephanie” is hospitalised,

“She wrote me a ten-page love letter in red ink.
The nurses tried to lull my guilt: ‘If an alcoholic
screams for a whiskey, it’s not the bartender’s fault
if he pours.’ I didn’t like being compared to booze,
like I could’ve been anyone – that acne-scarred chef

who grinned at her once, the mouthy car-washer
at the NA meeting, the pin-eyed new boy – like it was
just because I was her roomie and she was a nympho
and nothing to do with real electricity or Stephanie
somehow spying the part worth saving in me.”

There’s the now familiar outpouring of images, the speaker downplaying her relationship with the subject until she objects to the nurses telling her that Stephanie’s problems aren’t her fault. Then readers learn the speaker and Stephanie are roomates and underneath Stephanie’s emptiness and seeking to fill it with one night stands or drugs, she’s the first person to see the speaker for who she really is. And the speaker stops speaking as if the revelation exposes her too much.

“The Air Year” turns its focus to love, not sloppy sentimental stuff. Bird is too controled, too fond of the surreal for that and that’s a good thing. In “The Insurmountables” a man makes a talisman with a butterfly which he burns,

“as the wings caught fire
and fire became flight and the dead
butterfly translated into smoke
and something was released back into the wild

and untrained air where love is born
before we take it home.”

Love here seems random, something drawn in by chance. But it’s also a connection, even if we don’t know what formed the initial tug. The collection’s title poem, addressess someone who thinks she knows what she’s doing,

“Thousands of people have had to replace
their doors, at much expense, after you
battered theirs to bits with a hammer
believing that was the correct way
to enter a room. You’ve been pouring pints
over your head. Playing card games with a pack
of stones. Everyone’s been so confused
by you: opening a bottle of wine with a cutlass,
lying on the floor of buses, talking to
babies in a terrifyingly loud voice.
All the while nodding to yourself like
‘Yeah, this is how it’s done.’
Planting daffodils in a bucket of milk.”

This is not a case of imposter syndrome or a meek, eager to learn person but someone convinced they know how to do things, unaware that they are disastrously wrong. Or perhaps not ready to face the consequences and own up to mistakes. Their brashness hiding insecurities. After all the aim is to connect, to join people, to nurture plants even if the method is wrong. There’s a refusal to tip-toe around authority, to follow instructions or learn how to do things with deference. Perhaps there’s also a sneaking admiration from the speaker, who is not saying ‘do it this way’ but listing the rookie’s rebellious acts. Perhaps the speaker is not addressing someone else but herself.

“Rookie” is a carefully curated selected, showing Bird’s progression from teenage poet to mature adult. Underneath the successful humour, serious points are made about finding one’s place in life and dealing with the external highs and lows along with the aspects of your own personality you don’t want to put under a spotlight, but you also know if it weren’t working overtime backstage, the bits of you that you’re happy to put centre stage wouldn’t exist. It’s a great introduction to Bird’s work which is packed full of substance.

“Rookie: Selected Poems” is available from Carcanet.

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. It is also available as an eBook.

One Response to ““Rookie: Selected Poems” Caroline Bird (Carcanet) – book review”

  1. Carl Says:

    What a lovely poem! Can’t wait to read more. Thanks!

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