This poetry collection considers memory, family, the body, aging, and loss.
In his first collection, Doggerland: Ancestral Poems (2015), King explored the deep history of family and the Irish. Here, he touches on legend—one section is titled “Mythic”—but locates many poems in personal childhood memory and aging, his parents’ and his own. In “Bird Years,” the titular poem plays with the more expected concept of dog years (the next poem’s title, in fact) to give King’s own age, lending it strangeness: “In man years, I am sixty-seven.” The speaker sees himself as having a precarious hold on existence, like the California condor with which he later identifies. This vulture went extinct in the wild but has been slowly and expensively reintroduced; the poet writes, “More public support is needed / to save me for a little while longer… / I am nearly extinct.” That he compares himself to a vulture, not some more cuddly endangered species, comports with the weary mood that inhabits many poems in this collection. Several pieces reflect on parental decline but also decline in the speaker’s generation. In “Mouth,” for example, the speaker writes of himself and siblings: “We are wary—listening to Tom, / our weary brother, the reliquary,” his sawlike words “working the lean hindquarter / of our childhood.” Here, with the speaker’s caution and resistance alongside Tom’s weary work, age isn’t a time of retirement and rest but of increasing labor. Tom becomes a kind of archaeologist as the siblings talk; “on a last late night of excavation, / he makes a deep wound deeper while the wives sleep / —digs at our new, our long dead.” But beside all this difficult work is the poem’s lilt, as with wary/weary/reliquary. This hints interestingly at the speaker’s Irish background (also underlined by “reliquary”), Ireland being a country marked by both struggle and poetry. Forgetting takes on an ambiguous role as loss and protection from the past; the book’s final poem ends with elephants peacefully forgetting something their mahouts bitterly contest.
Strong, spare, and elegiac poems; a fine collection.