Wings of the Same Bird, Lorraine McGuigan. Interactive Press, Queensland, Australia. 2009. 76 pp. ISBN: 978-1-921479-35-9. AUS$25.
Reviewed by Patricia Prime
This collection by Lorraine McGuigan was the winner of IP Picks 2009 Best Poetry Award. The collection is divided into two sections: Part 1: ‘Wings’ and Part 2: ‘Of the Same Bird.’
You are in a safe pair of hands with Lorraine McGuigan. She provides civilized, thoughtful, well-formed poems without perplexities – poems that do not take risks, yet deliver a balanced criticism of life. Many of the poems have been previously published a d they confirm her ability as a sound poet who will never let you down, although they may astonish with moments of recognition. Her poems have the virtues of good prose – clarity and imagery that support a clear line of argument. She puts into accessible words what many people feel.
Consider the first poem, “Golden Lily,” which is based on “To The Edge Of The Sky,” a memoir by Anhua Gao. The poem is about looking at a showcase full of “wide-sleeved robes heavy / with gold and silver thread” but what catches the poet’s eye is a small satin shoe. The poet recalls what she knows about the ceremony of foot-binding which took place in China. The imagery begins with the robes but then talks about the child with “perfumed feet,” “folded toes,” “the crack of fine bones,” “foul seepage” and “pleated flesh.” While these are searing images, you could say, poetic, the language never soars. Yet the message is clear and exceptional and will resonate with many people.
In an admirable poem about a visit to Beijing, “Taste of Beijing: Sweet and Sour,” the theme is linked with memories and reflections about street people, food and the contrast between poverty and the beautiful dancer at an evening concert. She concludes,
in every limb she’s quickly upside
down, doing the splits, her body
a perfect T. Unbidden,
a skateboard comes to mind,
its eternal passenger, limbs fixed.
In “A Taste of Sudan,” she tells of a man called David and his escape from a place of captivity through a sewer pipe, where he was “Baptized in the waste / of fellow prisoners.” In another poem, “Bird-Bath,” about her mother collecting bird feathers, she evokes the budgies kept in the sunroom. The images are conventional though pleasing, “Seventy years on, this feather: a Pardolote perhaps, / hovering in frigid air, leaving just / a little of itself, for me.” This is bravely honest in that it touches on the way someone else’s love of birds can sharpen one’s own senses.
McGuigan is at her best when she approaches experience obliquely, for example, projecting herself into the experience of the beekeeper in “Summer’s End,” or into her Uncle Mac’s experience of losing his leg during the war in the poem “Uncle Mac’s Leg:
Cursing the tangle of leather straps, the shoulder
harness keeping the brute in place, he throws
the leg down one Anzac Day. Beats it till his stick
snaps. And weeps.
A fine poem about a man cradling a child killed in an air strike, “Struck,” avoids the tendency to tell rather than show in a tightly composed poem with its control of a sensitive subject:
Screams hang on desert air, float
in through windows of sleep
Nothing can quiet the air.
Land sinks under the weight.
This final reference to children screaming leaves the reader startled and pondering the futile loss of innocent life during times of war.
The second section opens with the poem “Rainbow (2003),” perhaps suggesting the poet’s love of birds. Here nature is raw: it’s below zero, the grass is frosted, there’s ice on the bird bath. The first stanza is about taking the ice from the bird bath so that birds can drink and bathe, and the second is about a “passing lorikeet” dipping its plumes in the water. The camera is found, but it’s too tale for the bird has flown. The poet’s attempt to capture the wild is frustrated. “Coffee for one on the terrace” focuses on a loved one who has spent weeks in intensive care and she wishes to help him,
Your eyes closed
against the struggle of it all.
I’d furnish you with fabulous
wings, fly you away, and flesh
warmed by a benevolent sun
we’d take coffee on the terrace.
Though her work is consistently well-crafted and true to experience, the final lines quoted here show how it can also be illuminated by flashes of inspiration that get to the heart of the situation and character she is describing. Throughout this section one is presented with family, friends and acquaintances, all of whom are portrayed by the poet with an eye for telling detail. Consider the small granddaughter who “wants to know yet again about dying.” (“Signs”). In another poem she sees herself comforted by her husband where “Our daughters lift / your arms curving them / gently around me” (Coupling”). The poet is prompted to say in “The Tasting” “Receiving the ashes, I am unprepared. How could they be so heavy.” The persona McGuigan projects is that of someone who has led a wonderful and interesting life, surrounded by love and affection.
However, McGuigan can also deal convincingly with difficult issues. In “Turning back the clock” she writes about someone who has lost a loved one:
the punctual one, he kept time
as though life depended on it.
Clocks never slow or fast.
On a whim their bedroom clock
remains untouched: a challenge
for him, wherever he now is.
Many of the poems in this section deal with memories and other domestic themes. In “Remembering,” for instance,
A business card arriving in our box:
white, black-edged, blank. And now
you are (whisper the word) dead I
wonder was it Death’s calling card?
And in “Time,” the persona discovers that
On his bedside table he has left
The Dictionary of Time, final chapter
unread. It waits for the bookmark
to be slipped aside, then a smoothing
of the page as was his practice.
McGuigan ensures that by and large the reader’s interest is held, as in the final poem “Traveller” where she talks about the “smooth travelling / as you row the spaces between us.” An unpretentious and honest writer, McGuigan’s overriding concern is to write about what she has felt and understands. At her best, she achieves an impressive universality.