Book by MEG KEARNEY
Review by HOWARD LEVY
There are books of poems that in their creation seem, for the poet, to rise out of a sheaf like an oasis, something unknown, unmapped, to be discovered in all its vivifying magic. Then there are books of poems that the poet always seemed to know the map to, where a central insight or trope allowed the book to unscroll itself in the poet’s tongue and brain and heart.
Meg Kearney’s All Morning the Crows, The Word Works winner of the 2020 Washington Prize, is one of those latter books. In the Preface, Kearney announces her childhood fascination with the birds in her backyard and how in 2002 she discovered a book entitled 100 Birds and How They Got Their Names.
But even before the Preface, Kearney proclaims her central metaphor with two definitions of the word “bird” from the OED; the first, “one from the feathered tribes” and the second, in the modern slang, a maiden or girl. We expect, then, that the book will explore these two definitions through its 51 poems, each poem titled with the name of one type of bird.
And of course they do, but not in any simple or unsurprising way. The first poem, “Owl,” rings a deeper exploration, that of sound, the long “o” of an owl’s hoot, becoming language. The book begins with an essential act:
She birthed you, but she is so
Is that the word? Try,
With this first sentence, we are immediately in a quandary. What kind of mother is “so unknowable”? And with the second sentence, the you, the poet/speaker, is trying to invoke language as a potential solution to this “unknowability” problem.
Immensely artful, this poem addresses major themes in two short sentences, but in a principally indirect way. The balance of the poem is even more sophisticated. The scene appears straightforward: an owl on a winter night is hunting a vole, hidden under the snow, while a girl sleeps and then wakes. The Owl mother watches over the girl but spins its head watching for the vole. Yet the girl,
daughter of hurt and squeal
has become the vole. But this is a complex web; the daughter has a “heart-shaped face”, the core of her mother has come down to her.
What is remarkable is how this palpable sense of both prey and power becomes the key to unlocking the narrative of the book. As the book unfolds, we will watch a woman move from a series of losses and bad decisions to a strong sense of self-knowledge and purpose, a sense of the self taking flight.
As the first section unfolds, we begin to understand, at the least, the basic facts of the mother’s unknowability. The unknowable mother was a nun who had left a convent, become pregnant, and given up the baby for adoption. In the longest poem in the book, “Crow,” situated in the first section, we learn this biography of mother, daughter, and newly-found sister, as the speaker has now taken on the task of defeating her mother’s unknowability. This poem, in short, staccato scenes, also reinforces the poet’s, not the girl’s, task:
Our mother did not speak
a secret language. She spoke
the language of secrets.
The speaker/poet has inherited her mother’s way with language, for what else would a poet want to say about her work except that she speaks in the language of secrets? Hopefully, though, she speaks with brio, as in the prose poem “Duckling, Swan”—
I was the art of my mother’s mistake, the ache in her dinosaur
heart. I was the winter, the ice-over early, no fish in the pond and the hunter’s sure shot.
The speaker, given for adoption, now has a second mother and a second deepening of the bird/woman metaphor. Language is the base for the poet but the poet’s aim is song. In “Starlings,” the poet/speaker says:
Though maybe too like me he thought
a song could save a thing.
But not so simple:
Winters/I would visit there while my mother
drank alone. Quiet, I’d tell the babies’
ghosts as their murmuration rose…
In Section Two of the book, the longest section, we get poems of disorder, the teenage and young adult poet/speaker as vole, as drunk, as risk taker in a world where men beat on the doors, where men take over and invite themselves to stay. These are poems where the damages of the two mothers have produced a woman fearful but prone to risk, to being washed away by drink.
I knew it was a dumb idea
to climb aboard this ship. Said it just
before you offered that first nip.
Before the petrels, before the squall.
Before the bottle made us small. (“Petrels”)
Of course there are some who think women should
keep their beaks shut, just look pretty while mopping
everyone’s shit off the floor. But tell me this:
if they all play it safe, simply wait for an end to the flood,
then who else will sing the song of witness? (“Magpie”)
And now we understand the poet’s urgency, her need to tell this tale, this possible salvation through the song of witness. In the unadorned language of this poem, the refusal to be poetic, the power of language is made manifest in the clear declaration of the need to witness.
While the language in this book is indeed direct and clear, it is wonderfully not as simple as might first appear. Many poems suddenly play with rhyme in their final lines, as if, as in Shakespeare, the rhyme ends the scene. In this way, each bird, each moment of feminine truth, shadows but does not really bleed into the next:
it’s a ruse. Her heart’s gone mealy and dry—
not enough sugar to make a quince pie. (“Catbird”)
It is here, in this second section, where disorders pile up like an Interstate 20-car wreck, that a small culling might have intensified the feeling of playing out an unwritten and unconscious script, a script so very powerful in its seeming destructiveness.
But now the poet/speaker, in the first line of Section Three, announces:
She’s reached a new low in loneliness (“Chickadee”)
—moving out of the world of disorder has a price. However, it is not so grim, as the beautiful and slightly comic music of the line makes clear. Though the men still fail:
It took her two years to face it: he wasn’t a nightingale.
He wasn’t a mockingbird either. Shit, he couldn’t even
There is a sense in this section that the poet/speaker has come to a real recognition of the sense of her self, has gained strength. She can recognize the failure of the men in her life and can discard them even though it brings loneliness.
Later, the catastrophe of the World Trade Center on 9/11, which the speaker is able to watch from her apartment, can be fitted into these gorgeous lines in “Mourning Doves”:
She should know. Here, in this city, the dead
are the air we breathe. Bits of paper, they ride
the breeze; musical notes, they fly down
the mourning dove’s throat, rise again
as dirge. Only music can mine such sorrow.
It is, in Section Four, that there is true change, a sweet beloved, a true anchor to the world and to song.
its gleaming wings spread
like great leaves to dry. There
was a time you would have
given in. You would have
said Yes. Swallowed
The book’s progression of sections reveals another possible level of metaphor working in this collection: that of migration. While the poems do not make much of birds’ migratory behaviors, this book charts the migration of this woman poet/speaker from an unknowable and loss-filled world to a world of love and serenity and song. In fact, this book starts with the words “she birthed you” and ends here:
So/ when my grave’s been dug, when they
lower my dust into the ground, may
a host of sparrows bathe with me.
May we fling that fresh earth skyward,
then lift our faces as it rains back down.
Where the speaker has begun as a terrified vole escaping the owl, she has grown, has migrated to being a beautiful sparrow “splashing in the garden dirt like a baby in the tub.” We can’t miss the distance between this final poem’s baby image and the first poem’s. Such architecture in a book is profoundly comforting and thrilling because it suggests a creation where the voices of the poet’s conscious and unconscious have risen together to beautifully weave a song that flies to us, like this flock of 51 birds.
Howard Levy has published two books of poetry and was resident faculty at Frost Place for many years. He lives and works in Long Island, New York.