'The sky was a country of its own': Blackbird, Bye Bye by Moniza Alvi, review

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Blackbird, Bye Bye by Moniza Alvi
Blackbird, Bye Bye is published by Bloodaxe Credit: Bloodaxe

In Blackbird, Bye Bye, Moniza Alvi’s first collection since her TS Eliot Prize-shortlisted At The Time of Partition (2013), Alvi takes birds as a unifying theme and runs – or rather, flies – with it. Here we find portraits of her parents as birds, meditations on eggs, nests, and bird anatomy.

The metaphor of birds as people works especially well when describing the process of migration. “The Coldest Winter” recounts the poet’s Pakistani father’s migration to England, capturing his surprise at the “freez[ing]” wind and “iron-grey” sea, while simultaneously conveying a sense of freedom and exhilaration:

They’d flown

with the valued cargo of themselves […].

The sky was a country of its own. All around them

the seabirds wheeled and cried and laughed.

As in her previous collections, Alvi probes the subject of dual-heritage, and the challenges and successes of living in between two countries. Concerned with borders of all kinds, Blackbird, Bye Bye also imaginatively treads the line between life and death. The book’s poignant opening shows the poet caring for an ageing mother, while her long poem “The Afterlife of Fatherbird” explores the ways in which the dead continue to inhabit the lives of the living: “Fatherbird, now that you’re dead you seem more alive”.

Elsewhere, Alvi’s poetic responses to works by the painter Remedios Varo and the French poets Jules Supervielle and Saint-John Perse are particularly strong. Alvi excels when her writing ventures into the surreal:

I’m haunted by the world’s shoulders,

its melancholic mouth,

the lit vulnerability of its face

which, above an inferno

holds fins and feathers in balance

Blackbird, Bye Bye is a tender exploration of the world and human nature, which recognises “the carnage, the onslaught/ of the centuries” while managing to find solace in the redemptive powers of art, language and the natural world.

Blackbird, Bye Bye is published by Bloodaxe at £9.95. To order your copy call 0844 871 1514 or visit the online Telegraph Bookshop

Sarala Estruch will be at Ledbury Poetry Festival 2018, discussing ‘What is the Role of the Poetry Critic?’ on Saturday July 7 at 11am alongside Sandeep Parmar, Tristram Fane Saunders and Dzifa Benson. Tickets and details; poetry-festival.co.uk