Watch the Birdie
by Rebecca Bilkau (editor)
75 poems, 86 pages
Publisher: Beautiful Dragons Press, Germany, 2018.
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Reviewed by Neil Leadbeater
In Britain, “watch the Birdie” used to be a humorous instruction issued by a photographer to his / her subjects to alert them to look into the lens as they were about to be photographed. This anthology takes a serious look at Britain’s vanishing birds. Each poem is a snapshot portrait of a single bird whose life is on the edge of extinction. Although the book’s sub-title bears the humorous phrase “Poems with Something to Squawk About” the subject-matter is a serious one that demands our immediate attention.
Sadly, it is now a fact that some of our most familiar birds in Britain, such as the house sparrow and the song thrush, are now on the Red List, that is to say, the list of endangered species. As a means of bringing attention to the plight of our fragile birdlife, the editor contacted a number of poets with a request that each should choose a particular bird from the list and write a poem in celebration of that individual species. Such was the passion and support for this cause that each of the 67 birds on the list had its own poet within 56 hours of the project being launched.
In her introduction, Bilkau describes the poems in this anthology as “songs of praise for the original singers. One for every single species on that red list, as it stands in October 2018.” It is important to remember, of course, that the list is changing all the time. Some species, through careful management, no longer become endangered while others become extinct. To remind us of this fact, one poem has been included that is dedicated to the memory of the great auk, a bird which is now extinct.
The birds are listed in the contents page and the order of the poems corresponds for the most part to a left-to-right reading of the red list table from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). The names of the contributing poets, their poem titles and contact details are given as an appendix at the end of the book. Each poem is accompanied by a black and white illustration of the bird it celebrates at the bottom right hand corner of the page by Sofi at Slamdunk Art. The cover artist is Kate Horner.
Within these pages we encounter dotterels with “yellow stop-start legs scuttling over stunted grass; / bobbing between boulders,” willow tits that weigh “the same as / a triple A battery,” tree sparrows with “chipper chestnut caps,” ring ouzels that “remind us / of the wild ragged edges of our lives” and herring gulls that “hang, brazen as youth, above the prom….waiting for a tide of chips.” We also learn about the migratory patterns of the red-necked phalarope, the defence tactics of the marsh warbler, the scavenging habits of the herring gull, different local names for fieldfares and the bonding ceremonies of Slavonian grebes.
The poems are written with reference to a wide range of habitats that include the north shore of Blackpool, the Strangford wetlands, middle-England hedgerows, a decommissioned nuclear power station, and a lock on the Llangollen canal. A few poems also reference places abroad.
The anthology encompasses a variety of styles. Some poems concentrate on a degree of verbal play (“ruffs” and “roughs”), while others cover more than one subject (in “Last of the Cockney Sparrows,” for example, Louis Bailey also touches on the plight of East Londoners who were forced out of their natural habitat by war and gentrification and whose numbers have dwindled, just like the bird they are named after). Some poems attempt to capture repetitive bird movements in sound (in “On Meeting a Grey Wagtail,” Louise Dunsire writes “Bob-listen, bob-look! Bob-listen, bob look! / Flick, flick, flick, flick”) and others, such as Ron Scowcroft’s “Great Awk: The Last Interview” take a more surprising turn where the bird is interrogated with regard to its interests, greatest achievements, regrets, pet hates, etc.
In addition to the “bird poems” there are a number of poems written to commemorate people who have advanced our human understanding of birds and helped us to defend them. These include Francis Willugbhy (1635-1672), Emily Williamson (1855-1936) and Sir Peter Scott (1909-1989). Willurghby was an English ornithologist and ichthyologist, and an early student of linguistics. His Ornithology was intended to describe all the then-known birds in the world. Its innovative features included an effective classification system based on anatomical details such as a bird's beak, feet and overall size, and a dichotomous key, which helped readers to identify birds by guiding them to the page describing that group. The book was published in Latin in 1676. Emily Williamson, an English philanthropist, was the co-founder in 1891 of the RSPB, first known as The Plumage League. The British ornithologist and conservationist, Sir Peter Scott, established the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust in Slimbridge in 1946 and helped to found the World Wide Fund for Nature.
Since this is an anthology it would not be fair on the other contributors if I were to single out a specific poem to quote at length. That said, there are a number of very fine poems here from Lanius Collurio, Rebecca Bilkau, Jane Poulton, Jean Atkin, Bev Morris, Ron Scowcroft, Louise Dunsire and Jane Burn.
To raise awareness of our rapidly declining wildlife, all profits raised from the sale of this book will be donated to the RSPB. A very worthwhile cause.