McCarthy Woolf’s debut poetry collection, An Aviary of Small Birds, is an elegy to her stillborn son, Otto. Avoiding sentimentality, she relives the awful time of Otto’s stillbirth, and its aftermath, treating the practicalities and profound grief with unflinching honesty and courage. “My Limbs Beat Against Glass” is a terse eight-line poem which pulls no punches when it begins:
I am trapped in a room where my baby dies
and when I try to fight my way out
a Victorian lepidopterist with walrus whiskers
skewers my solar plexus.
There are prose poems, formal poems, a sequence of moon poems, free verse and concrete poems. “As an Axe Misses the Tree” has a jaunty, nursery rhyme rhythm which only serves to underline its darkness when it ends:
As a mule misses the horse
and laughter misses mirth,
as a coffin misses its corpse,
as death misses birth.
“Mort-Dieu” appears on the page like an infant’s tiny, slender coffin and “Morbleu” uses erratic line spacing to evoke dissonance and affliction. In the same poem, the flat-lining of the heart monitor is recreated on the page with the use of em-dashes and white space:
— we haven’t got —
a heart beat.
With huge restraint and craft, McCarthy Woolf by-passes sentimentality. “White Butterflies” becomes a litany of white flowers and fabrics – white hydrangeas in the bouquet, a box of white tissues – to end, “Your tiny white vests, unworn.”
“The Paperwork” is a particularly visceral re-visiting of the awful parental decisions required by hospitals when an infant is stillborn:
I sit up in bed, try to make up my mind.
Will it change anything if I decide
your heart, liver, lungs, kidneys
are returned to the abdominal cavity?
My forefinger traces a path through
Option 5c: I understand these parts
will not be returned to their original position.
McCarthy Woolf uses the scope of the collection so well to evoke her experience of loss and grief, applying different lenses and perspectives. She doesn’t follow a chronological path but moves back and forth in time, similar to the way memories have of blurring and bleeding into one another. She also conveys the complex mix of emotions which arise – anger mixed with sorrow and resignation; hurt and the desire to hurt. In “Dog”:
Who says your death is blameless?
I want to slip this August moon in a sack
and watch her wriggle like a puppy
as she’s swallowed by the lake.
There is some comfort to be found in the cycle of nature, the sense of a return from life to death and perhaps also a sense of shared experience. In “Hawk”:
That’s not to say the mottled feathers flowing
or that gurgle rushing over the corpse
so it disintegrates—the eye’s already white—
isn’t calming, because it is a comfort,
this return to water, to the stream, to the earth […]
This is such a generous collection where anguish and anger, pain and sorrow are shared so openly and so eloquently. While it may be a form of loss that I may never have to experience personally, I feel a much greater understanding not only of the experience of stillbirth, but also of my own losses from reading this stunning collection. I took it to a coffee shop for my first reading of it, not knowing what it was about, and wept.
An Aviary of Small Birds would be a cathartic and comforting read for those who have experienced the loss of a child through stillbirth but its lyricism, authenticity and beauty will touch you, whatever your life experience.
Read “The Registrar’s Office” from An Aviary of Small Birds.