Review by Sharon Tracey
Like the hollow bones of birds full of space for air sacs, the poems in Ann Fisher-Wirth’s new collection, The Bones of Winter Birds, breathe in the tiny hollows of grief and loss. Where things are delicate and hidden. And where we find the birds we find the bones—poems for parents, a deceased older sister, a child still an infant, the poet at fifteen, a letter to Emma Bovary. Personal histories filled with bones that break, leave, return, unsettle, and slowly repair. Some are shared in winter light, others on the edge of a season. In the poem “Nearly April,” the poet notes that “the sap-rife glory does not stop for grief.” (p. 31)
We follow birds as they make their way through the collection: birds in a jungle of wisteria, a cardinal, a scattering of little grey birds flitting over a barbed wire fence at a Mississippi state penitentiary, swallows from the river, warblers, mourning doves, redwing blackbirds, crows over scorched grasses. Living birds with hidden bones.
We also find ourselves “In That Kitchen (She Speaks to Herself)” as the poet writes, “In that kitchen, despite the official sunshine, soup boiled / up with the bones of winter birds, cook-sweat slid down / the windows, and the mothers cooked the death of things.” (p. 16) The steam she creates continues on, permeating the poems.
Fisher-Wirth embues her work with a strong sense of place. She takes us to pecan trees in Mississippi in the opening poem, “October: A Gigan,” then travels back and forth to California and further afield to France, finally returning us to the Mississippi campus where she teaches and where “students pass with their Ah’m gone go Southern soft/ voices and the squich squich of their flipflops…” (p. 78). Place also turns into bird anatomy. In the poem, “Beneath the Rain, the Pewter Feathers of the Seine” the poet writes, “that was a narrow time for us…” ending with the line, “the days pass I remain” (p. 61). One can almost see the pattern of feathered vanes rippled on the river.
There is more than one cold fire in the collection, and grief enough to spread around, but there is also lightness in “everyday darkness.” Even the poem “Everything Here Looks Very Dismal” turns on itself, launching into a reverie set around the conditional if as a way to conjure other possibilities and outcomes. (p.57)
The poet draws out delicious sounds in lines of poems. In “Sumac,” “Brilliant stems of sumac in a jam jar, black-eyed Susans—scarlet.” (p. 76) even as the poem itself turns dark. In her short poem “Wyrd,” Fisher-Wirth reflects on fate and personal destiny, condensing the sense of loss and how we wrestle with memories, (p.77)
Like a summer creek the mother dries up
in me. Enough to see the sun and hear
the jays toward twilight squabbling in the pines.
Enough. All that worrying.
Clawfoot, bone, beak, and feather, now let be.
As the collection nears its conclusion, Fisher-Wirth brings us “Sunlight, Sunlight” (p. 78) which includes the lovely line, “sunlight doesn’t stop just because we do.” It’s such a simple fact but she makes the line feel newly made….” Later she goes on,
now, sun’s all over this page except where shade is, sweet
scalloped shade breaking the Mississippi glare…
…And sunlight stroking the birds’
throats so it comes out as song.”
Grief and loss—it comes and goes and never leaves us. But Fisher-Wirth’s evocative poems console even as she offers up her lament, making meaning out of grief in poems that renew and render loss in words that sing and linger.
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 21, Issue 2.
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