Zoe Brooks’ poems in “Owl Unbound” look at how humanity often shows its best side when allowed to connect with the natural world and can be at its worst when disconnected or stuck in a concreted environment designed for productivity rather than people. That does not mean the poems are gentle. In “Naunton Farm” the narrator is an executor dealing with paperwork and discovers her mother’s note about her husband’s death,
“My hand reaches down
to the little cat
with no ears,
which rubs against my ankle crying.
You had hands big enough
to hold that cat
in your palm,
away from the burning barn.”
There’s a tenderness in the image of hands being there to nurture and comfort and a sense of connection between the daughter and her late father. The reaction of the narrator to the cat, instinctively reaching to fuss it, suggests the fire was not linked to the father’s death. Instead it seems to be an inheritance, a responsibility passed on yet still treasured. A theme of heritage is picked up in “The Seedsavers”, a group of women who work to separate seeds from pods and sort them into which are worth keeping and which should be discarded. The women talk as they work.
“At last she rises
and walks into the garden
sniffing the wind.
Her shed‐husband offered
to make a machine once,
but she prefers the ancient way –
the lift of seed, the fall,
the scatter of chaff across the roses.
She turns and returns to the others.”
The machine would put through a higher volume of work, assuming there was enough to keep it fed. However, the sense of community, of working together for a common purpose would be lost. The stories and news shared over the work might be lost too. The “shed-husband” is shut off from the women and also the wisdom that comes from being literally in touch with the cycles of crops, how well the roses are doing, how healthy next year’s crop might be and what weather the wind will bring. There’s a sense the women are working with nature while the machines attempt to tame it.
The urban poems feel desolate, in “From Streetlamp to Gutter”, is set near a railway with commuters getting on the newly arrived train,
“The boys have dragged their cardboard boxes
under the railway arches and sleep.
We do not hear or see them.
We have homes and trains to go to.
We have rain‐soaked coat seams
and hair like wet satin.
We are not warm,
yet warm enough to make us
not stand a moment longer,
not stand and wait at all.”
The commuters have become accustomed to ignoring the homeless in their rush to get home, not pausing to think about whether people who merely have cardboard to shelter in will manage to cope with the cold and damp. When there’s no easy solution it’s simpler to ignore the problems. The poem is about more than just the idea of pausing to notice the homeless. It’s not having the freedom to step back and ask if we are doing the right thing, if we are living the life we should be living, if changes could be made that would improve our lives as well as those of others. By not taking that time and hurrying for the train, the commuters seem to be as trapped as the homeless.
In the title poem, an escaped owl leaves “an empty perching post” and the narrator,
“At my father’s instruction
I held out my hands
as if ready to receive bread and wine,
but into my bowl of fingers
he dropped a pellet,
a galaxy of small bones and feathers
cocooned in fur.
That night I woke.
The moon shredded by clouds
hung over the stable roof
and an owl called unbound
from the cypress tree.”
The majestic owl, something to be watched from a distance while its handler was the only one to go near it, has gone. The daughter thinks she’s about to receive a memento to keep and treasure but instead gets the remains of the owl’s last meal. Something that can’t be kept. If it’s a reminder of anything, it’s that the owl is real and nature can be ugly as well as beautiful. Later, woken by an owl’s call, she can’t be sure it’s the same owl, but nonetheless it’s telling her nature should be free. These are not birds designed for confinement.
In “Without a Stair” adult daughters become a bridge between grandchildren and grandmother who is like a ghostly presence “flickering on a landing without a stair”.
“She made our home an ark,
built it strong with seasoned wood.
She is still there
in her house on a crumbling cliff.
Some time soon it will float out to sea.”
It could be a life coming to an end or a reminder that memories fade or a bit of both.
“Owl Unbound” is a series of gentle poems through which Zoe Brooks explores human relationships with nature and how respect for the natural world brings out a sense of community and purpose which can be lost in urban landscapes.
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.