Caught by the River

The Mizzy

Will Burns | 28th November 2019

Paul Farley’s latest collection, the bird-centred The Mizzy, is recently published by Picador. Will Burns reviews.

Is there a collective noun for bird poems? There are obvious candidates—a flock, for example. And less obvious—a parliament, an unpleasantness, a murmuration. My vote would be for the latter, with its suggestion that poems of the kind (should that be class, or clade?) require a certain kind of quiet, down-played human speech. As if the act of talking through, or in, or about, the non-human should necessarily take on a kind of humility of speech. Paul Farley’s fifth collection certainly contains its murmuration—we have poems titled ‘Starling’, ‘Bananaquits, St Lucia’, ‘Lark and Linnet’, ‘Robin’, ‘Moorhen’, ‘Gannet’, ‘Treecreeper’, the ‘Mistle Thrush’ which gives the book its name and more, though ‘murmur’ is perhaps not quite the right word here. The language is clean, clear, the eye always unnervingly accurate. But the book is shot through with notes of uncertainty, doubt. Some sense that the world has changed while the poet’s back was turned, that realisation has come to ‘a man/whose card was marked but didn’t know it.’ 

In ‘Sparrowhawk’, for example, the gaze of the poet is as squarely aimed inward as at the feeding hawk. The hawk, in fact, articulates this view, pronounces upon the voyeur-poet, ‘Admit it. In among your stringy ethics/you lurve watching a hawk like a hawk.’ The bird poems here all carry this strange weight, of something being communicated, translated, or perhaps to use the tech-y parlance that Farley deploys and skewers so well so often here, something shared. The bananaquits of St Lucia seem to anticipate the ‘days of firsts’ that disorient the observant traveller, the wanderer away from home, the robins that ‘lead the way’, but backwards into memory, the mistle thrush whose song becomes a Whitmanian affirmation of the ‘I’, the self blending with its environment, with its co-authors.

These bird poems are set against, or amongst, poems of another breed, poems like ‘The Gadget’, and ‘Life During the Great Acceleration’ which locate the reader in a kind of digital present or close future that re-configures the natural motifs Farley uses elsewhere. In ‘Life During the Great Acceleration’, the speaker combines the names for types of archaic work with the pervasive catch-all concept of ‘data’, but this sense of someone talking of themselves as a ‘data monger’, who has ‘sold your histories’ also colours the appearance of all these birds throughout the book. There is a feeling of taking stock at the end of an epoch, or the start of one, or perhaps simply in the middle of a life, and with that a realisation that almost everything can be reduced to the status of the digital, of ‘data’—‘Would you like to check your balance?’ the poet is asked at the end of ‘Hole in the Wall’, and I couldn’t help but think of a twitcher’s list of birds. 

In that poem, the metaphorical conception of a high street as a reef connects the human and non-human worlds, but elsewhere the connection is a more physical one. In ‘Gentian Violet’, the language modulates deftly between a sensual earthiness appropriate to the poem’s Lawrentian aspect, ‘the vein/that rises for a moment in your breast’, and a distinctly modern, almost-jargon—the flower activating a ‘sunset clause in the laws of common sense’, a ‘sweetheart deal with bees’ and in the final lines the image of a city on fire, ‘seen from air support’. The effect is a tightly-wrought interweaving of scales of time, which is further drawn out in ‘Moss’, a poem in which ‘the junction where The Wrong Side of the Tracks/meets Memory Lane’ serves as a petri dish for all this temporal, cultural, environmental blending, where ‘the mighty sodium mast’, the ‘spoil banks of the motorway’, and the ‘smoked-out sun/over Manchester’ play themselves off against the fossil record, buddleia, ‘thrown-back carp’, kestrels, the sea wall. It is a vast and expertly done tribute to an obviously beloved place, and the pure Dylan Thomas of ‘and we are young and green in the old and afterwards’ corroborates the poem’s swelling affection for the places and things of both the poet’s youth and the city’s. The city is composed of both a set of artefacts and those artefacts-in-time, the final image of a ‘landscape of speed’ ‘gathering moss’ dislocating the reader to startling, and moving, effect. 

The book ends with a magisterial bird and death on a beach. The final poem, ‘Beach’, addresses in its way all that has come before, the poet describing experiencing a dead whale on a beach. Again the human and non-human are engaged in their seemingly inevitable cycle, with the human somewhat tawdry, the world of ‘souvenir hunters’, ‘a core customer’ and ‘consumer-driven content’ coming up short against the whale’s gut performing a version of gestation through the second half of the poem, finally alighting on a perfect last three lines for the collection as a whole—

a faint commotion through the walls of meat, and with no need to
tickle any ribs, or set fire to the coracle you didn’t bring, emerge
un-spat back into the day, the world exactly how you left it.

But of the final two poems it is the ‘eating machine’ of ‘Great Black-Backed Gull’, the perfect consumer, that almost still has the last word. The gull is another harbinger of memory, and memory once again culled from the wreckage of the pop-cultural past. Here, the bird brings back the thought of watching ‘Jaws/at the ABC’ through the poet’s conflation of the rubbish tip and the sea. The birdwatcher-poet has become a ‘landfill lubber’, and the birds have forsaken the sublime for the stink of the rubbish tip. Here is more evidence of the changed world of the ‘forty summers’ that have passed since the poet lay in bed contemplating sharks. It’s a masterful sleight of hand, the landfill-as-‘slowed-down sea’ image, and the kind of imaginative leap the book is built of. The trick is not just seeing things anew, but drawing the thoughts out to the extent that Farley is willing to. There is something so plain-spokenly haunting about the last lines of ‘Great Black-Backed Gull’—‘they’re such powerful birds/and the tide keeps bringing everything they need.’ it’s as if the poet has forgotten all aspects of the performative-ness of poetic speech, and has tailed off into a murmur.


The Mizzy is out now and available here, priced £14.99.