It’s tempting to look at the title poem of An Aviary of Small Birds, as it not only expresses a literary influence (in particular, the poem references a mythical bird the Octobrine as coined by Pablo Neruda) but also encapsulates the high note I was reaching for, as a lyric and an elegy.
However, the poem I’d like to talk about is, in fact, the shortest poem in the book, if not in line length then in word count.
An Aviary of Small Birds is thematically connected to a single, autobiographical event: a full-term stillbirth at which I lost my baby son Otto to whom the book (written in the immediate aftermath over a period of four years) is dedicated. ‘Mort-Dieu’ is a fourteen-line sonnet with a Petrarchan rhyme scheme, with two syllables per line. I didn’t start out writing a sonnet – I was more interested at that point in syllabics, and I worked my way down from six, to five, then four then the final two syllables per line.
It only became a sonnet, when, during one of its many drafts in my notebook, I realised that it had reached its conclusion in fourteen lines. There was also a lot of assonance and so, without my knowing, the poem had arranged itself into its approximate, appropriate form, which I was able to complete with some tweaking of the order and changes to a few of the end words to organise the rhyme.
‘Mort-Dieu’ is an early poem, both in terms of its narrative and compositional chronology. In the book it sits next to a ‘companion’ piece ‘Morbleu’. I wrote the two contemporaneously. ‘Morbleu’ took shape at Pascale Petit’s course at Tate Modern where she runs workshops that invite poets to engage with the museum’s exhibits as a spark to create new material. Working with Pascale was an important factor as I found her approach to dealing with painful, autobiographical subject matter through the transformative agency of visual art inspirational and empowering.
I remember at the time, just a few months after the bereavement, I was acutely sensitive to sound. I think this may be a very primal, physical response to trauma: where we are protected from the shock and resulting dreamlike state through a heightening of the senses. ‘Morbleu’ is a poem driven by sound (rather than the image of a visual piece) and this is echoed in the formal structure of ‘Mort Dieu’. The two syllables give the poem a binary, bell-like toll – to me it is the book’s death knell. It is also the moment at which the test of faith is at its most acute, where not only a child, but God too has died.
At this point it seems apt to say something of the titles. Reading through my early drafts in my notebook, I noticed the phrase ‘scream blue murder’ – a rather clichéd, idiomatic expression, that nonetheless made me wonder how it had come about. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable revealed that ‘blue murder’ is an Anglicisation of the French ‘Morbleu’/’blue death’ which in turn is a euphemism for ‘Mort-Dieu’ /’God’s death’ which was considered too blasphemous to be uttered in polite society. In the anthology Ten: New Poets (Bloodaxe, 2013) where these two poems were originally published as part of a sequence, I include this note as an epigraph; however in the collection it didn’t seem necessary, and the physical presence of an epigraph too intrusive.
At the time, while working with Daljit Nagra, one of the anthology’s editors, we discussed whether the poem was too conventional in its upright, simple language. Initially, Daljit felt the poem might be better served by more linguistic disruption, however I managed to convince him otherwise as I wanted to preserve the solemnity of the piece and to do that I felt the vocabulary needed to be unobtrusive, almost invisible. I’m usually very happy to revise and cut drastically, but on this occasion I held my ground.
‘Mort Dieu’ also owes a debt to another longstanding form: the letter. At the time I had just commenced a literary correspondence with a young poet, Miriam Nash and I had become fascinated by the particular effects the epistolary address brings about. Inherently it carries with it the ghost of call and response, a predominantly conversational tone and an urge to ask questions, whether rhetorical or literal, answered or forgotten. It also allows me to emphasise the poem’s true spirit of affection and love through the repetition of ‘dear’, although as it appears in the poem the enjambment gives it the double reading of exclamatory distress.
The first time I took this poem out into the world was to a longstanding seminar led by Moniza Alvi. I couldn’t read the poem myself, it was too difficult, so a friend and fellow poet read it aloud to the group for me. It felt very intimate, that moment of release to a small group of friends and usually rigorous critics. I did ask people to flag up any issues, but I can’t recall if there were any suggested revisions, I suspect it was close to its final published form at that point, and that people wanted to be gentle.
For me it’s a poem that represents many things: my relationship to belief and how life events, trauma and grief can challenge our faith in a spirituality (non-denominational in my case) that transcends the human and also to writing, poetry and specifically poetic form, as a means through which to capture and release our most poignant emotions. The poem is physically slight, and in this sense it also symbolizes the very fine line between sentimentality and sentiment that a book about losing that most precious and innocent thing, a newborn baby, must tread.
Karen McCarthy Woolf was born in London to an English mother and a Jamaican father. She is the editor of three literary anthologies, most recently Ten: The New Wave (Bloodaxe, 2014). Her poetry has been published in Poetry Review and Modern Poetry in Translation among others. An Aviary of Small Birds (Carcanet, October 2014) is shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2015