Poetry Review: Blackbird, Bye Bye by Moniza Alvi

Blackbird Bye Bye by Moniza AlviBlackbird, Bye Bye is centred around the theme of birds – the age-old symbol of grief and love. Some of the poems are so abstract that they feel almost entirely like creatures from another universe, while others feel more solid, earthed as they are in the physicality of trees, family, or culture. There is a lightness of touch, so that as a reader you sense a kind of ‘lift off’ from the first page, moving swiftly across oceans and lifetimes towards the final landing point.  

Many of the poems take on a visual form, mimicking the shape of wings, or indented, with lines moving across the page like a bird in flight. The first sequence of poems focuses on ‘motherbird’ and ‘fatherbird’, using metaphor to explore family connections. These are poems that deal with dark moments in the lives of their characters, but at the same time they are edged with humour, reflecting the emotions and complexities of life.

The first poem introduces ‘Motherbird’ as ‘a big blousy bird in the nest’ and these first few poems gradually reveal that she is nearing the end of her life:

She pecks at the grains and sorts them into piles.

Some she relishes.

Some she doesn’t want to think about at all.

A few she doesn’t recognise.

So many grains! Such a long life!

Sorting, sorting, shifting to another pile
and back again.

These poems also tell a story of migration from Pakistan to England, portraying the ‘iron-grey breadth’ of the sea in ‘The Coldest Winter’, and the sense of uncertain freedom:

Moniza Alvi poem 1

They also recount the story of ‘fatherbird’ – focusing on his absence…

Moniza Alvi poem2

This is followed by an extended sequence entitled ‘The Afterlife of Fatherbird’ – a tender and honest portrayal of grief and a reflection on how death impacts on the lives of those left behind. I particularly enjoyed the third section, which rejoices in the beauty of regained youth:

Moniza Alvi poem 3

The poems become more abstract and philosophical towards the end of the volume, but they continue to focus on the theme of birds, death and migration. I particularly liked ‘November Trees’ which draws on the metaphor of nest-building to subtly interrogate the idea of trust between migrants and those who may or may not accept them in their new homes. And ‘The Tree’ is a beautiful, vivid, yet brutal picture of death itself:

It took you such a long time to fall,
gripping and gripping the branch.

You must have landed with a thud.
Perhaps you even heard it.

There is also a sequence of poems inspired by the paintings of Remedios Varo, and another sequence after the French poet Saint-John Perse, which zoom in on the birds themselves, exploring the intricacies of their physical bodies, designed for perfect flight. The collection ends with a powerful image of death, and the final words of the Fatherbird.

Blackbird, Bye Bye feels like a book of two halves. The ‘motherbird’ and ‘fatherbird’ poems are powerful in their simplicity, and I think would have benefited from a collection of their own. This is a  book which explores the complexities of old age, death and grief, centred around the notion of family and parenthood, playing with the enigmatic metaphor of birds.

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Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.