Bird of Winter

Bird of Winter

by Alice Hiller

Published by Pavilion Poetry

Review by Pauline Rowe

Alice Hiller’s debut poetry collection bird of winter (Liverpool University Press, 2021) is an act of witness,  exceptional in its exploration of form, sources and landscape, and deeply humane in purpose. Hiller says of the colours chosen for the book’s cover: “They needed to wrap the darkness which the collection addresses in a transformative mantle of light.” She explains in her blog [ https://alicehiller.info ] that the ocean blue cover and turquoise lettering evoke, for her, the sea off Normandy, a place she associates with the sustaining love of her late French grandmother, and father.

There was a fracture in Alice Hiller’s life when she was 8½.  Her beloved father died of motor neurone disease and she was separated from her paternal grandmother, the bonne maman of the poems. Between the ages of 8 to 13 her mother subjected her to sexual abuse and violence.  In ‘oiseaux d’hiver’ (p.68), a poem for her father,  she writes:

each night that I was attacked

you floated farther from me

and when I cried for help

only the soil of your grave

answered my open mouth

Hiller’s poems navigate this experience of torture, its aftermath, and moments and epiphanies of healing through the excavated evidence of Pompeii and Herculaneum, cities destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD.   In the opening poem, ‘o dog of pompeii’ (“your howl was buried under/metres of ash and pumice”), the charms that surround the cast of the dog are:

taken from the bracelet of the burnt child

found curved on vesuvius’s shoreline

whose hunched body carries me back

to the linen sheets and lace counterpane

in my mother’s house

Hiller was an abused and injured child whose suffering was invisible to those who scrutinised her behaviour.  One fragment from her childhood medical notes, in ‘pistil’ (p.10) states:

                            …difficult with medicines, aggressive &

            difficult with other children, bites and scratches.

            difficult  to

            get her off

            to sleep at

            night.   ie

            spoiled ++

In ‘tessellation’ (p.32) a moment of epiphany is realised when in her teens, hospitalised for anorexia, a doctor offers her some hope for a future:

                                                                                                                       the doctor lights her

            cheroot filling  alice’s lungs  with heavy  candy  floss      the doctor says 

            you must understand you’re not your mother     you can only get well if

            you move far away from her

In the title poem ‘bird of winter’ (p.36) the suffering child is represented by a damaged and trapped chaffinch and her account of this discovery is framed by a doctor’s questions of concern:

            …you’re thirteen   you must grow up              although the chaffinch keeps

                  and separate from your mother                fluttering onto the curtain rail

                        you can’t live at home                        it is not strong enough to fly

Hiller interrogates experience by using strategies of form that include erasure poems, concrete poems, collage and concealment, blacked-out pages, an empty page, cut-ups and extracts from her childhood medical notes. The poems become an act of witness through textual and historical evidence. She uses books about the archaeology and history of her lost cities as sources for nine erasure poems.  Selected fragments of lines show through blackened pages to demonstrate the precarity of finding language in the face of horror. Her central quest is to express the unspeakable, to voice the lived experience of the wounded child in order to reclaim life.  In the first erasure poem ‘the stupendous task’ (p.7) Hiller shows the humane necessity of her purpose, that her poems are a bid for survival:

     …Herculaneum must be excavated completely

                      for the good of the living

                                                            every year’s delay makes

                                                          more difficult,

Her poems are also about memory that is carried by the body, as well as the mind. In ‘remnants/silvae’ she includes fragments of translation from Statius’ Silvae (p.18):

            who will believe when

            these deserted places bloom again

            a body remembers in

            the only language available

            our entombed cities

            their absent people

In ‘Living beyond sexual abuse’ (p.78) – the end pages of the book that follow the notes and acknowledgements – Hiller advises:

…we were not complicit in what was done to us as children and teenagers, and … we should not feel of less worth for having been subjected to a crime which we had no means of resisting. Reaching these understandings, in a kind and respectful context, can also make it possible to live more freely and joyously again.

Some poets wait patiently for poems to reach them like gifts from the elements, from air and water. Others build work from their own flesh, blood and bones, in defiance of censorship and silencing.  Alice Hiller is a rare poet who uses both approaches to write an extraordinary testimony of trauma that offers fierce resistance, as well as hope to survivors of sexual abuse.

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