As Kingfishers Catch Fire, by Alex Preston and Neil Gower (Corsair, hardback, 280 pages. Out now and available here)
Review by Will Burns
Although Wendell Berry was talking specifically about the land when he wrote that a ‘destructive history, once it is understood as such, is a nearly insupportable burden. Understanding it is a disease of understanding…’, there is surely a good measure of his logic in much of what passes for our writing and thinking on all of nature in our plastic age. I could not help but read Alex Preston and Neil Gower’s beautiful book as anything less than a meditation on such ‘destructive histories’, and indeed have come to believe that for many of us this sense of a nature separate from us – lost, humiliated, degraded – can only exist in a kind of imaginative space, a clearing (or clearance) of sorts in our time, our culture, our technologies.
From the introduction and through each species-specific chapter, this book does its work of clearing those spaces for us through the experiences, gaze and learning of Alex Preston, wonderfully augmented by Gower’s illustrations. Preston wears his scholarly credentials easily, his prose picking its path through a sometimes time-warping blend of academic thought, field observation and memoir-ish biographical asides. Through one chapter’s discourse on its chosen bird, for example, we find out about both a favourite Aunt of Preston’s and his heart-scuffed young life in Paris. We also, of course, learn about swallows. About their hold on the author, but also about how they coloured the works of Roger Deakin, Anacreon and Kathleen Jamie. Preston quotes some lines of John Clare and posits ‘the swallow’s migration as a kind of wandering’, picks out Hughes’ ‘Foreign sort of sky-writing…’, and mentions Sebald and Odysseus. It’s impossible not to slip, at least imaginatively, into a mode of thought made up of movement, migration, worldliness, as opposed to land borders and yet more of our ‘destructive histories’ (however recent).
The argument set out in the introduction, and skilfully maintained, is that watching birds and reading books (and best of all, somehow creating a space where both activities apply pressure on one another) both transform us and our ways of seeing and remembering, but also transform the function of each other across those multiple intersections that Preston so carefully renders for us. His readings of the poems and prose sections he chooses to discuss are as strong as they are democratically rendered – this is a refreshingly forthright, honest and clear book and one that perfectly balances serious thought with a desire to properly communicate.
It is also a response to a previous book, written in the 1920s by one of Alex Preston’s many eye-catching forebears, the long-serving British foreign secretary Edward Grey, whose Charm of Birds provides a kind of template for Preston’s own idea of a ‘record of his life, smuggled into a bird book’. And this is the relationship explored throughout – how books, once they have replaced birds in the teenage Preston’s affections – alongside, of course, skateboards, guitars and girls – can somehow hide within them the essence of the real life of experience. Preston starts to keep notebooks detailing the occurrences of birds in his reading, and realises that he’s still watching for them, obsessing over them. His depiction of his reading suggests how his childhood yearning for birds has shaped his adult work. This is the true success of the book – expressing that strange and disconcerting sense of the artist as held between their work and their obsessions, somehow trying to synthesise the two, while also living through what the poet Tim Lilburn calls the ‘conscious world of things’. And the world of things is always present here, in loss, birth, loneliness, and in the birds themselves. There is a hugely moving chapter on the Collared Dove. The chapter is also about Preston’s father and illness and mortality. It’s a wonderful section, with a light touch somehow encompassing life in a city, politics, and the emotional turmoil of family life, as well as expert deployment of how a bird might figure in all this – how it might become ‘so deeply entwined with its literary and scriptural forebears’, how it might function in the grief and trouble and hope that come with this business of living.
The bird figures, in the end, are much like true understanding itself – its value lies in difficulty. One of Preston’s most compelling readings comes in the chapter on the Wren, in a passage about Roethke’s Elegy for Jane (My student, thrown by a horse). Preston has already described how birds ‘are rarely caught or held…’, and extends this into the feelings expressed by Roethke in the poem. His grief is in part ‘the fact that he stands outside of conventional modes of feeling’, his love ‘won’t be pinned down, it flutters away the moment he tries to capture it…’. This is connection-making superior to any common-or-garden anthropomorphism (which Preston rightly describes birds as resistant to), and I think is ultimately why this is such a rewarding book. That serious thought about these ‘self-dissolving’ seeming-impossibilities – flight, air, pain, loss, time, memory, is a way of serving the world by re-locating us in it, rather than in opposition to it. We can come to terms with those ‘destructive histories’ and perhaps contribute to the reversal of our own damage through this work of reading and looking.