The Starling’s Song

ss_frontcover1The Starling’s Song

B.L. Bruce

Black Swift Press

Available on: Amazon.com

Review by Bhaswati Ghosh

For those of us who live it every day, urban life can be unforgiving in its demands. Yet, there are release buttons that can help us slow down and turn towards the natural world and its rhythms. This movement isn’t as much a result of curiosity as it is of a desperate seeking — whether to find the missing pieces of the jigsaw of modern living or to simply let go of the puzzle altogether. The Starling’s Song, a recent poetry collection,  constructs a fine floating bridge to negotiate that distance — between nature’s tranquility and human restiveness. B.L. Bruce makes us walk on that now-steady, now-wobbly bridge with Feel, her very first of the three dozen or so poems in this chapbook.

Were you here I’d point out/the coyote’s tracks through the sand,/the distance between where/each paw fell,/tell you he was running. I’d reveal the place/where, beneath the dune grass, the gull’s/body lay torn open and hollowed, say/to you, This, this is how I feel.

Bruce’s piercing vision captures and reflects images from the non-human, organic realm with a rare crystal sheen. But this eye isn’t limited to being a camera; by juxtaposing nuances from the world of plants and animals, the poet is able to find clues to anxieties peculiar to the human condition.

I’ve not yet discovered my gift/of bearing, not yet realized/a power to propagate, to nurture.//I cannot understand myself,/but know the fawn abandoned/when the doe is hit on the highway,/the keening of quail, the scream/of the cottontail’s young/as they are taken by the red fox. (Mothering)

This undercurrent of disquiet is what takes The Starling’s Song to a different level, beyond the genre of mere nature poetry. While Bruce’s brushstrokes of imagery are luscious enough to hold the reader in a spell,  it is her layering of emotions and memories, especially uncomfortable ones, to those images that makes them quaver with loneliness and heartache in strangely soothing ways. In Waiting, she says,

Mist moves/to the edge of the forest,/catches the last, dusted light, keeps/joining the woodsmoke./ I am waiting/for you, for the sound of you/on the road, on the doorstep.

In her poems in this collection, clearly written from the vantage point of delicious proximity to nature, Bruce doesn’t stop at exploring the self and its relationship to others through an intimate association with the world outside concrete walls and human organization. Nature isn’t always a peaceable therapy to help reconstitute memories and make sense of them; it can be equally pain-inducing and cruel, based on what the mind reads of it in a given moment. Bruce’s Picker is chillingly reminiscent of Seamus Heany’s Blackberry Picking in its desolation and disturbed unraveling of the seemingly innocuous and even joyful act of berry picking, as

I am bending low/over row after neat row/of red, ripe strawberries.

Turns to…

…I remember/the mushroom picker’s daughter./She watched a man get sucked/into the maw of a machine that/sorted and weighed the day’s pick.//From a window above,/she looked on as the machine/spat out the man’s blood…

Now, overripe berries/ooze in the August sun./I weigh them, put them/in baskets, and drive home/where I’ll wash them,/boil them, add sugar,/and make jam.

None of the poems in The Starling’s Song is too long and brevity certainly seems one of Bruce’s key strengths. The shorter the poem, the more punch it packs. Blood and Seed are two such examples that are able to carry enormous weights on their slender shoulders. Ripe with muscular strength, these poems eschew the need for strong-boned superstructures.

I eat a pomegranate/and think of you,/delicately, patiently/separating peel/from seed. With my tongue, suck/the tart juices/from the kernel,/spit out what’s left. (Seed)

What strikes the most about the poems in The Starling’s Song is the rawness of the word imagery. There isn’t a lot of coating going on, nor is there any attempt to ensnare the reader with mysterious metaphors or complex philosophizing. Instead, there’s a refreshing starkness — of both scenes and the longings and aches they echo within the human mind.

And yet, even the pain — with all its stabbings– has the ability to redeem a certain kind of peace, as Bruce discovers and relays in Chorus, the penultimate poem in the collection.

Even now the arresting silence/in your absence has a music to it.

Dear Spring

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You might hide behind the clouds
and sprinkle snow in place of sun
But the birds, they can see you fine,
come out, there is no place to run.

True, the trees are still all bare
and the ground is missing shades of green,
but birdcalls herald happy tidings
and sing aloud, “Spring is in!”

Seize this day while you can
show us how to make it right
the things you need are easy enough,
tulips, fresh sprigs and sunlight.

Afternoon Meditations

A year ago, as a potential resident of London, ON, I spent a gorgeous summer afternoon in Victoria Park. My husband was coming to the city for his final round of a job interview, and I tagged along, just in case we didn’t get a chance to visit the city again. Sitting in this expansive park that afternoon, I contemplated what it would be like to live in London. As I complete a year in the forest city, here are my impressions from a summer ago.

London

A children’s festival is in progress in Victoria Park. I sit on a bench and see squirrels and birds engaging in mini battles over morsels.

Squirrels scamper in ceaseless motion–climbing up and down trees, scurrying across the grass, pausing in wonderment for a few seconds before taking off again.

Dogs, kids in strollers enjoy free walks, rides.

Church bells ring; lunch-goers emerge from offices, heading to big and small eateries to satiate the hunger god.

A man sprawls on the grass, reading a newspaper.

Beside me, on the bench, the pages of a national daily flutter in midsummer’s breeze, letting go of the heaviness of yesterday’s news.

Under a tree, a girl sits alone, ear-phones plugged into her natural audio sockets.

I turn behind and find a brown squirrel looking at me intently.

A young couple sleeps on the grass, embracing each other, oblivious of the world around them.

Alien Winter — II

“Let my love like sunlight surround you
and give you illumined freedom.”
~ Rabindranath Tagore

Sunshine isn’t an easy paramour.

In my hometown,
it spills over in
volcanic excess–
scorching land,
human bodies,
cattle and crops,

even as it gently
rocks the hills
with its undulating dance
on terraced tea gardens.

Yet in this frosty city,
it plays hard to get.
Deaf to pleas,
appearing on whim,
the hometown beau
avenges yesterday’s curses
by spurning today’s
advances.

Sunshine is a tricky lover.

Also see Alien Winter — I

Alien Winter — III

Alien Winter — I

Sun erases snow
wind howls
winter beseeches.
The church spire
stands mute,
unmoved,
cold.

The wind pauses
its howl,
lunchtime beckons.
School children run
to grab a
windfall of leaves.

Snow motes swirl
ruffling the air’s hair,
the earth’s an eager
bosom.
Children conjure up
castles, snowmen.

The wind screams
tearing through
flags, bare trees
windows
and a sheet of
congealed memory,
unfreezing on the
surfacce–
a foggy morning in
my hometown
half a world
away.

Alien Winter — II

Alien Winter — III