Review - "Flightless Bird" by Rosemarie Corlett

Steve Spence

 “Flightless Bird” by Rosemarie Corlett, pub. Shearsman Books. 68 pp.

This is an intriguing collection which demands both a high level of concentration and also a degree of ‘going with the flow’ which might on the face of it appear like a hopeless contradiction. These poems combine complexity with experimentation and some wonderful linguistic inventiveness. Like Andrew Martin’s debut collection Shoals of Starlings, Flightless Bird is both an exploration of the individual psyche as well as providing a commentary on human relations with the natural world. In terms of the ecological tone of the work I’m also reminded of Jeremy Hilton’s Fulmar’s Wing, published recently by Knives, Forks & Spoons Press.


In ‘Ladies Kindly Remove Your Hats’ the cinematic imagery evokes a feeling of a reworked film noir where we have a questioning of genre allied to a dreamy soundscape which almost lulls you into sense of complacency. The opening lines – ‘Don’t put me on a pedestal / because I will let you / down…’ leads to – ‘It’s probably that I’m trying / to provoke a murder. My murder / flicks across soft millinery, bang / against the auditorium. …’ – a few stanzas later. The reference to ‘a flightless bird’ in the final stanza echoes the title as well as hinting, perhaps at Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. ‘Leda and the Ostrich’ refers presumably to both the Yeats poem and to ‘a painting in a gallery’ with some wonderfully playful, subversive language which seems to suggest a crazed form of taxidermy (I couldn’t help thinking of Psycho at this point) yet also forces the reader to up his or her game:


                    The beam is strong enough to change

          a painting in a gallery,

                     a Type A oeuvre like Leda and the Swan,


               into something breathtakingly bastard: half-blood

                 gorgeous, treacherous lovely mongrel

          sexy fresco and oils where plaster


          forms a physical bond

                      with paint. And the painted swan

          becomes an ostrich. And all

                      the gallery birds go monster – a camel sparrow neck


          snakes around Leda where a swan once stood:


          this is the pull of your honeytrap mouth on the lip of a cup.

          I search my body until I know it’s illegal


          and Leda skirts a bird-beast in a painting in a gallery.


                  (from ‘Leda and the Ostrich’)  


From ‘Flight’ we have the following opening passage which again suggests a negative relationship between our species and the natural world with a combination of irony, melodrama and surreal violence:


          It was an accident.

          A twinjet

          and a duo of giant birds,


          one down each engine.

               First, bang into the blade root,

          second across the nose cone.

          And the plane slips


          and falls

          into a stately home.

          Always the most unruined thing,


          And so

          a mansion with a jet through its middle,

          and all the branded napkins

          up in a flurry,

          the seats’ under-foam all showing,

          a big house full of seat belts

          and relatives.


The following ‘headline’ – ‘ONLY GARDEN BIRDS AND THE FAMILY BUDGIE SURVIVE’ – adds to the absurd nature of a depiction probably loosely based on an actual incident and the line ‘a mansion with a jet through its middle’ reminded me, incongruously, no doubt, of the sculpted shark which features in a domestic dwelling in Headington, Oxford, which has finally been ‘officially accepted’ as part of the local environment. The matter of fact nature of the above narrative, allied to such strange and unsettling imagery throughout this collection leads the reader (this reader!) into all sorts of odd byways and offbeat analogies. Surrealist influences abound and remain an effective way of dealing with trauma, global injustice and the sheer horror of real life events. Rosemarie Corlett has a knack of combining an often glamorous, seductive style with something more shocking if indirect, allusive, elusive and compelling.


          To be one of your things


          There’s a plane

                      draped over the beach.

          Wings out, on its front – a toddler napping,

                                      three windows missing,

          And the very tip of its nose

          might be gone.

          It’s no beast


          in silence like this;

          the sun

          draws dark circles

          under two white wings – a miscarriage.

          I don’t wish


          to do anything again.

                            Especially help.

                            I realise now

          with brute salience

                            that I was never, ever born

          to be useful.


There’s a strong sense of vulnerability in these lyric poems. Images of flight and flightlessness in the avian world combine with human concerns and there’s a subtle feminism underlying the themes. Flightless Bird is a terrific debut and one which requires careful re-reading as its multi-layers don’t give themselves up easily. These are poems which stimulate and make you think and which quite often take you off guard. They are also quite beautiful.



Copyright © Steve Spence, 2022