Denise O’Hagan

Denise O’Hagan reviews ‘A Triptych of Birds and A Few Loose Feathers’ by Pratibha Castle

A Triptych of Birds and A Few Loose Feathers by Pratibha Castle, Hedgehog Poetry Press 2022

Originally published in the Rochford Street Review, 5 September 2022. 

If you picked up this debut collection with its elegant, slightly teasing cover depicting three artfully placed feathers, you’d be forgiven for thinking A Triptych of Birds and A Few Loose Feathers is an extended ode to the natural world, and its avian representatives in particular. Indeed, in her prominently placed opening poem, Castle speaks of ‘hankering’ after the long-tailed tit’s ‘cabrioles of joy’—a sense of yearning towards nature that characterises much of her work.

Various birds flutter their way through the pages that follow, from sparrows, robins and wrens to blackbirds, crows and swans. All are keenly observed and tenderly evoked, as in this portrayal of a blackbird:

In a clutch of days, he wheedled
a cranny in my heart … The bird
scrutinised my every move, his tail flick
the black fan flirt of a señorita.

 – A Celtic Spell

The pervasive backdrop of the natural world not only ignites in the poet a sense of wonder, but also provides her with a way to express, imagistically, her most cherished desires:

I pause
at the water’s edge,
bowl my hands
as if dawn
might be
cradled like
a gull’s egg … Sun
seeping through the clouds
is an ache for my mother’s smile

 – Dawn Walk

Nature is not only celebrated in Castle’s poetry, but suffused with a sense of the sacred. Her use of the title word ‘triptych’ is telling: a triptych (from the Greek triptykhos meaning ‘three-layered’) is an artwork in three parts, usually religious. As a convent-educated daughter of Irish Catholic immigrants to England, she is well versed in church traditions, and her poetry is steeped in a sense of the liminal, of finding herself hovering on the thresholds of worlds—the secular and the spiritual, Ireland and England.

Wandering through fields and woods, for instance, she is transported into a misty wonderland and, transfixed by the heady beauty around her, feels herself worshipped:

Dryads lean in,
anoint me with
murmured prayers.

 – South Downs

Nature has a long history of being personified in poetry, but rarely is it handled with the succinct poise of, for example, these lines about the young girl stepping out of the Confessional to find:

A crow on a grave stone
ruffles its wings, cackles
applause. Breeze tousles her hair.
Baptism of apple blossom, absolution.

 – Exodus

If nature might be said to occupy the central panel in Castle’s lyrical triptych, however, the other sides are no less eloquent, in particular when they explore her layered past. There is often an urgency to the language of recollection, as any immigrant, or child of immigrants, will recognise, and nowhere is this more true than when the poet contemplates her own peripatetic childhood:

Home, a place
she’s never known
having grown up
in many mansions
ten in her first ten years

 – An Gorta Mor

Language which did not find an outlet in childhood becomes not only a means of exploring the past, but also a vehicle for reconciling it with the present:

I put words in a paper bag,
hid them in my pocket.
Forgotten, squished like plums,
they leaked, chastised
the skirt of my Mary dress
with stains of shame …
A woman, I returned, exhumed words
meant for savouring on the tongue,
to be broadcast with blackbird songs

 – Plums

There is a searing poignancy of a different kind in the poet’s recalling her father ironing out his copy of The Times or her mother’s valiant observances in ‘the Finchley flat / that was never home’:

come the Saint’s day,
she clipped shamrock
to the collar of her coat,
… Her heart
keening for green hills

 – Swans

This dislocation resulting from immigration finds full-blown expression in ‘An Gorta Mor’ (The Great Hunger), an unflinching indictment of the genocidal policies which gave rise to The Great Famine, and the poet’s own inherited trauma:

Legacy in their bones,
potato crops,
black fleshed, a glut
of rot. Stinking. Turfed
out of crofts by blade-vowel
landlords with moot right
to pie-slice, dole out
the misty isle.

 – An Gorta Mor

For all her light touch, Castle doesn’t baulk at facing pools of darkness. In one of the most startling instances, a series of short impressionistic lines evoke an errant priest, demonstrating just how devastating insinuation can be:

Words hiss. Tell me, my child,
tongue-click over cracked lips,
flicker in the priest’s groin:
exactly what did yous do with him?

 – Exodus

Disturbing too is the haunting episode by the bridge, where the child’s cry is silenced by a passing train. The poet’s typically fluid free verse style is noticeably tightened, and a deft use of assonance and heavily enjambed lines serve to heighten the tension:

Drab mac
peeled back
exposes male fright
moon white slug slick
on the zipper
glint of prurient eyes.

 – Under the Bridge

Despite this, the overwhelming impression that Castle’s poetry leaves us with is an animated engagement with all facets of life. By the time she arrives in the ‘Big Smoke’, she’s a child no longer, and:

Strutted the nights away
with flautists, a harpist
whose healer’s hands
strummed my strings;
drummer, his silk tipped stroke
nimble on the snare; callous guitarists
plucking tunes from out of smoke drifts.

 – The Only One Who Loves You

From an exquisitely lyrical hymn to nature in all its myriad forms, to a poignant lament for our past which was never wholly ours, to the passionate and gently humorous embracing of all that later life has to offer, A Triptych of Birds and A Few Loose Feathers confronts the big themes of love, life and death with accomplished and disarming ease. Strewn through its pages is an abundance of ‘loose feathers’—from snatches of Celtic lore, chalk-cheeked nuns and glass-eyed koalas to a click of needles, miraculous blue medals and Mary Quant minis—lending lustre to each panel painted.

In short, Castle’s quietly assured way with words and uncanny ability to conjure a world at once mysterious and transparent conspire to produce an utterly bewitching debut collection which is, at times, reminiscent of the work of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin.

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