Hannah Coombs reviews Tessa Foley's newest collection of poetry, 'What Sort Of Bird Are You'?
From her island home within the thickly-drawn borders of Portsmouth, Tessa Foley sends forth What Sort of Bird Are You?, a collection of poems inspired by Glyn Maxwell, Rick Dove and Maria Ferguson amongst others. The collection will resonate with many readers, regardless of where they might be, but will perhaps have particular resonance for residents of Pompey.
What Sort of Bird Are You, published in May 2021 by Live Canon, follows Foley’s earlier publications Chalet Between Thick Ears (Live Canon, 2018) and the self-published Garden (2018). In these earlier publications, Foley found her place to fit in with the flowers in the garden; in her latest collection, Foley has built herself a church:
On my aspired spire there are forty-nine crows
and they’re under nothing, on top of creation,
not one illusion of who is the king
(‘I Built my own Church’ p. 31)
Identity, development, and a growing sense of self are the foundations of the collection’s structure.
What Sort of Bird Are You? is split into three sections: Old Bird, Mean Bird and New Bird, moving from life just before an 'emotional revolution' as Old Bird, through conflict and learning a bit more about life in Mean Bird, into an empowered and empowering New Bird.
As the poet told me:
New Bird is the ‘balls to it all’ section in which I hope to stand up and yell but it still has those notes of hesitation in it.
Portsmouth and place
As with Foley’s earlier publications, What Sort of Bird draws upon her life in Portsmouth as the setting and influence for much of her poetry. However, it isn't the landmarks and well-known spots that feature, but the back roads, local pubs, and other everyday spaces that form the integral framework of one's life.
In her recent blog post, Foley explains how the use of these places in her poems is unintentional and subtle. This subtlety lends a universality to the collection, but at the same time these local places are highly personal for Foley and live deep down inside her. The skill of the poet is in making them just as familiar for the reader.
The brambles and fences of ‘Bad Things’ could just as easily be in the alley at the back of your own house, the fish ponds and parks of ‘All Fall Down’ just around the corner, and the nightclub stairs of ‘Idolatry’ a feature of any night out:
I crossed myself at the gates and went on in,
alone, to read the braille
along the railings ’round the goldfish
I fell into direction
but the echoes were so loud,
that I had to break the patterned path
(‘All Fall Down, p. 32)
Amidst these familiar corners, ‘American Dream’ moves further afield, offering a view of potential lives overseas – all the more poignant and relevant after the last year (and a half?!) without travel. Luring us with a beautiful vision of exploration, adventure, and unfamiliarity, Foley shatters the dream with the disappointing realisation that she is not living the American Dream, but only dreaming of the Dream, still tantalisingly out of reach:
I admitted my states
were of mind and on loan,
my York was not new and my pants were not under,
the wonder of west were sleep candy alone.
(‘American Dream’, p. 42)
This blend of local and global, intimate and universal, is a perfect stage for the impressive range of experiences that find their reflection throughout the collection. What Sort of Bird discusses endometriosis, first times, abusive relationships and the Me Too movement: whilst each of these can be highly personal, Foley writes in a way that shatters any risk of isolation and instead unifies.
A poet’s wisdom
Within these accounts of real-life struggles, What Sort of Bird Are You? manages to avoid tones of resignation or defeat throughout. Even in the Old Bird poems, addressing attitudes prior to an emotional revolution, Foley offers a refreshing view that all those events which seem like the end of the world at the time really won’t be of that much consequence. ‘Bad Things’ reassures the reader that no matter how [big] and scary things may seem, when it comes down to it they may not really be all that significant in retrospect:
one New Year in the shower,
one single chime, one year short
of forty, my mind said not the worst thing
will be most important. Not all bad things
are important at all.
(‘Bad Things’, p. 19)
Happiness and (im)maturity
Maintaining this perspective that bad things really aren’t that bad, Foley flaunts a refreshingly happy attitude as she rejects the all-too-familiar image of the boring, party-pooper adult in ‘This is the Big Life and You Don’t Have to Have It’. The poem criticises the compulsion for control and order, particularly from parents at the expense of children’s fun and parents’ happiness. To be grown up, she says, is:
rinsing out the magic
from a tiny pair of eyes, it’s
painting skies with forecast clouds,
it’s sneering at the dreams, it’s thinking
dirt is on the floor.
(‘This is the Big Life and You Don’t Have to Have it pp. 52–53).
Bringing the Mean Bird section to a close, ‘This is the Big Life’ foreshadows and opens up the 'balls to it all' attitude of ‘New Bird’, as Foley builds an alternative non-adulthood of rude noises, playing with food and being sorry for causing upset to others. Even if clouds and dirt can be bad, they don’t have to be important.
The ‘balls to it all’ attitude peaks in ‘New Bird’ with Foley standing her ground, claiming ownership of herself and speaking out on the Me Too movement. In the midst of this empowering final part, Foley maintains a self-awareness and humbling sense of reality:
and though I woke, my eyes
still are closed. Was I pressed to make up for Rose West?
advised for the best to keep hands up in schools?
(‘The Privilege’, pp. 70–1)
‘The Privilege’ offers – as the name suggests – a self-conscious privilege-check, while ‘In Case It Comes Back’ gestures to an ongoing anxiety of returning evils even amongst her attitude of rejecting the Big Life and standing her ground. These poems maintain a realistic and relatable tone to the end of the collection, and with What Sort of Bird Are You? Foley has said balls to all the right bits.
Old Birds, Mean Birds and New Birds: what sort of bird is Foley now?
“A Thunderbird, also known as a Thickhead”, she says.
Now, what sort of bird are you?
Hannah Coombs (email@example.com) is a first-year student of PhD English Literature at the University of Portsmouth, researching child refugee narratives from the Holocaust and present day. She is interested in place and identity, and international literatures.