image: carcanet via the telegraph

‘The Air Year’ by Caroline Bird is a breath of fresh air

Caroline Bird’s The Air Year won the 2020 Forward Prize for ‘Best Collection’. Bird told The Bookseller that it was written out of a time of “complete uncertainty” in her life, where she felt “mid-air”. The collection is known for its flight, transition and suspension. Ironically, I found Bird’s poems to be most certain. Bird’s collection begins at ‘Mid-air’ and it halts with sharpness like a gasp of air before an exhale of relief; and this is how the collection goes on. Bird showers us with unknowns that turn into honed revelations.   

But what really made this collection special for me was how Bird unleashes comical characters, and how she brings sex, gender and politics into conversation. I feel Bird has a knack for approaching important subjects with a warm comical familiarity. ‘Dive Bar’, which was originally published in Proud, an LGBTQ+ anthology, was particularly profound. Bird manipulates the role of a secret of a speaker (a closeted lesbian on her way to a bar). She ends the poem on a note of self-discovery, where the speaker becomes: “spat out / on the pavement with / the sun just / coming out”. 

In effect, a lot of the time when reading the collection I was unsure whether to laugh or weep – so, naturally, I did both

Two other favourites of mine were ‘Nancy and the Torpedo’ and ‘I’M SORRY I’M NOT A FUCKING TORPEDO’. In these two poems, I found Bird’s presentation of intimacy, fear, and vulnerability to be beautiful.  These poems explore two women, lost, testing out a torpedo, and the jealousies that arise around using it. In all honesty, I’d have loved even more directness about the torpedo, but I still found Bird’s creation of humorous images often illuminated the sadness of them; they made me feel like the speaker and I shared a secret. In effect, a lot of the time when reading the collection I was unsure whether to laugh or weep – so, naturally, I did both. 

What complemented Bird’s solemn and hopeful poetry on love and sex was her poems about matters of life and death. She speaks of these with such urgency, via sharp sentences. I enjoyed the way she employed ordinary daily objects; it seemed to show to me how each day counts. One of my favourite examples of this was in her poem ‘Fridge’ where she speaks of the secret light in the door which is unseen until opened, and in ‘Flicker’ where the speaker greets both bus and tree “hello”. 

Bird’s collection of poems feels like a storybook I’ve needed for a long time

This is the thing about The Air Year, it has this magical quality in the respect that it has such an astute variation of form, which at the same time matched the content presented. I was in awe of the way that Bird weaves fantasies and realities together, and by the end I began to find it hard to differentiate the two. Consequently, The Air Year is distinctive in the way it compresses small fantastical tales, as well as profound ordinary moments, and rolls them into one collection. 

A poem from The Air Year I adored the most in this respect was ‘Surrealism for Beginners’. I felt that Bird has a talent for creating vast worlds in her poems through the way that she creates them in such a short amount of lines, but then she also tears them down right before my eyes towards the end to make her point. ‘Surrealism for Beginners’ is a poem that has stayed with me because of its effect in creating a stunning gut-punching articulation of what it is like to fall in love with another woman, as a woman, in a world that refuses to accept this. In this sense, Bird’s collection of poems feels like a storybook I’ve needed for a long time. 

Essentially, Bird’s The Air Year had a gorgeous quality of encompassing a talent of storytelling and knack of verse whisked into one collection. I found it to be a collection of uncertainty (which we are used to this year) but provides that glimmer of hope within (that which we all could do with). Bird’s collection made me laugh, cry, and it also provided a place to feel understood. It gave me a place to crawl in-between the lines and rest for a while.  

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