A Speech of Birds

Victoria Field’s new poetry collection was published this year. I’m delighted to share a short conversation piece about the book and one poem in particular. You can buy a copy of the collection here.

Image of Victoria Field's collection 
A Speech of Birds

I’ve been enjoying your new collection A Speech of Birds, Vicky, and find a playful levity present along with such weightier themes of mortality and pilgrimage, to name just two.

Thanks for this Fiona. I’m glad you found levity among the weightier themes of mortality and pilgrimage.  This comment highlighted for me the metaphors that inform our lives, often unwittingly. Levity, lightness, play can sometimes seem in short supply in the world as it is presented through our media at the moment. The only appropriate response to their litanies of environmental, social and personal tragedies would seem to be grief. But that is the base-note, the background hum that has always been there. But of course, especially if we turn our listening gaze to the local, there are melodies, light tunes playing above the drone of sadness. I hear these songs in the changing seasons, the wild creatures living alongside even in suburbia, awe-inspiring scientific discoveries that illuminate and create wonder, the endless singing streams of art, books, poems, and the everyday connections with neighbours, friends and community. Light, joyful things! Like many, I found the enforced staying-local of this summer heightened my pleasure in the birds, local swimming and new walks from the house that I may never have otherwise discovered.

Back to the metaphors.  Like the trees, which feature in this collection, all of us have our roots in darkness, in the heavy ground. Like the acorns, buried by squirrels in the garden, we too begin this life in the darkness of the womb. And like trees, we slowly become vertical, our branches touching the light, defying gravity. The two informing images of my residency in Blean Woods were birds and trees and (this might seem obvious to the point of facile) what struck me was that trees are rooted and the birds come and go. Stasis and movement.  Different kinds of growth but parallel cycles underpinning both.     

You picked up on another abiding interest of mine, pilgrimage. That happens horizontally, a journey through time, across a landscape, another dimension again from those inhabited by birds and trees. The idea of time as linear is, of course, an illusion as is the idea of ‘getting somewhere’ but pilgrimage, or ‘the journey’ is a powerful metaphor across human cultures. I’ve tried to invoke cyclical time by arranging the poem through the chronology of a calendar year, even though poems reference events from decades ago. As soon as we reach December, we’re back to January, but a new January incorporating the strata of previous Januarys.  Perhaps this collection relates as much to geology as pilgrimage!  

Your poem ‘Postcard from Brittany’ describes in animating detail a woman ‘in her eighties’ cycling with a ‘coiffe/Awhite column rising from her crown like a pillar/in a ruined Mediterranean temple’. It is an unusual image so vivid that it made me smile, yet you go on to say, in the second stanza, that ‘Le coiffe … is worn as a symbol of mourning’. In this poem, then, you have the kind of beautiful levity and gravity present that I mean. Did you witness this particular woman in Brittany?

The poem was inspired by an actual postcard which is exactly as I describe it in the poem. The photograph itself is a mixture of levity and gravity. I found myself looking at it for a long time.

The coiffe she is wearing is an extraordinary structure;  a white cylinder that seems to be half the height of the woman and completely perpendicular to the horizon, even though she’s leaning forwards. It’s comical, but when I looked up the origins of this piece of folkloric costume, it has a serious significance. In the same way women wear black in Mediterranean countries, and used to in our culture too, to signify loss, in Brittany, the coiffe  is a symbol of mourning.  An especially tall coiffe means that the woman has lost many loved ones.  The reference to a ruined temple is nod to time and the iconography of holiday postcards, as well as the striking similarity in the structures.

How interesting. I like the way you then shift from third to second person as you address, in the second stanza, a different figure: ‘I think of you, in your eighties …’ Your shift to ‘we’ in the penultimate line then universalizes the sense of carrying ‘a burden of history’ as we age.

The postcard was sent to me by my aunt, who is coming up to 88, and was on holiday in Brittany with her grown-up children. Like me, as a young woman, she found cycling gave her freedom and independence, a way of travelling significant distances from home. She still cycles to the shops in Cardiff.

The ‘you’ is deliberately ambiguous. I’m addressing a variety of ‘yous’, the cyclist on the postcard, my aunt on her holiday whose own long life has had tragedies and challenges, and to, some extent, my future self.

I’ve heard bereaved friends say they wished they could still wear symbols of mourning, especially in public, so people might treat them more gently. I think there’s a good case for that.  As you say, burdens of history, personal and global, accrue for all of us as we age. Clothes as signifiers might be useful at times.    

How do you feel your poems are developing as you, yourself, begin to shift into what has been called ‘the second half of life’? Is there anything new emerging, have you noticed? Clearly, there is that which abides, too, such as the theme of pilgrimage?

Second half of life? I think I passed that milestone over a decade ago at the age of 45. I celebrated then with a sea swim and beach party (in February!) conscious that even if I live to be ninety, which seems to be the lot of most of my female ancestors, I was at, or past, the mid-way point.  I’ve always enjoyed Seamus Heaney’s account of the bond between his children and their elderly neighbours, the former ‘growing up’ as the latter ‘grow down’.  If we think of the trajectory of a life as following a normal curve, at 57, I’m at the same level as my teenage nieces, whom I love. They will carry on upwards, as I carry on downwards.  ‘The Hammock’ by Li-Young Lee is a poem which for me captures perfectly this mystery of our brief so-called ‘life’.  His mention of singing also reminds me of St Bede’s description of our lives as a sparrow’s flight through a mead-hall, ‘safe from the wintry tempest’ for a short while. The image of a warm, convivial mead-hall where we can briefly take refuge is especially comforting as I write this in October as the days begin to darken.

So, how does this relate to the writing of my own poems? My instinctive response is that I am slower and more inclined to want to stop the moment.  Contemplation, silence, stillness and more attention to presence, are all becoming more important. Pilgrimage seems a way of reconciling that list with movement and being in the world rather than retreating from it.  There’s the paradox of finding stillness whilst walking. Many pilgrims relate experiences of being permeable and facilitating a sense of oneness with the world. Pilgrimage, as Auden said of poetry, makes ‘nothing happen’ and I see that ‘nothing’ as rich, expansive place of possibility, of ‘being’ rather than worldly busy-ness and doing, of a chance to cycle along a sunny coastline, balancing something extraordinary on our heads …

Thank you, Vicky. Wonderful.

Postcard from Brittany
Pas facile de garder le coiffe droite!
She must be in her eighties, this woman
balanced on her old-fashioned ladies bike,
face intent, scanning the coast path, its strip
of sand between bright stripes of furze
and rock-strewn turquoise sea.  No mud-guards,
sensible shoes and thick tights, red panniers
at the back but what dominates is le coiffe,
a white column rising from her crown like a pillar
in a ruined Mediterranean temple. She’s leaning
forward to pedal but her coiffe stays perfectly
perpendicular, forms a T with the dense
blue of the horizon. Indeed, not easy to do.
I think of you, also in your eighties, still
cycling as much as you can, spinning along
those paths between land and water during
the liminal days of a summer break. Le coiffe,
it seems, is worn as a symbol of mourning,
or at festivals, its increasing height a response
to last century’s wars. You’re dressed for a holiday,
I assume, but you too carry a burden of history,
wars and losses, poverty and abundance.
It can’t be easy keeping it all upright. Perhaps
we could all do with a coiffe, intricate and lacey,
to balance the decades as we ride into freedom. 

From A Speech of Birds by Victoria Field 

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