The Shape of a Tulip Bird by Christopher Hopkins

A review of the poetry collection The Shape of a Tulip Bird by Christopher Hopkins.

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This is a heart-breaking collection. Christopher Hopkins writes about the full weight of what might be considered an ‘ordinary’ grief. By ordinary, I mean not uncommon, not freakish; something that happens to many people, the loss of a child in utero. He gives it its proper due, in a world of silence, misunderstanding, impatience, and banality. It is a common belief that there is ‘closure’ to such a grief, an allotted time even, usually conceived as around six months. Some even suggest that another quick pregnancy can solve the problem.

Instead, Hopkins “dives into the wreck,” exploring the tearing apart of the universe, the complete bouleversement of the soul, that such an experience causes. It is good to read about a man’s grief for such a loss, as we more commonly hear about the woman’s. His work reminds me in some ways of Douglas Dunn’s Elegies, Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters, or some of Don Paterson’s poems. Hopkins has such gifts and skills in language; he is an ideal guide through the trajectory of grief from the first shock to a time of more acceptance and understanding. It has been a privilege to read such heartfelt, private and visceral poetry.

There is a sense of connection and disconnection running through the book, of understanding and not understanding. The metaphoric language is straightforward enough—water, moon, weather, stars, light, night, myth, rock, colours, blood, sea. He draws his poems together by the repetition of the same symbolic language throughout, representing his loss as a natural catastrophe. This is not difficult to understand. At the same time, there is a mysterious something that eludes description, or rather lurks under some of the descriptions.

the shingle steep is singing
The unreachable strata
at the boiling edge of the crown
as words are pregnant in the mouth

‘The Nature of Love’ by Christopher Hopkins

I find myself thinking from time to time but what does he mean? I can’t analyse it, couldn’t explain it to you, but I grasp some sense of a mysterious connection. This is the language of the heart. Hopkins uses his remarkable feeling for language, with fractured grammar, unusual vocabulary, and unexpected juxtapositions to express the disjointed experience of grief.

Usually, I like my poetry cut and dried, clear in narrative, clear of wordplay, erudition, and fine lines. However there is no searching for the emotional meaning. Hopkins uses his wonderful gift for the sound and rhythm of phrases to express nuances uncatchable in ordinary words when sad, heartbroken, or grieving are too commonplace to convey the weight, heft and intensity of these feelings.

Sometimes the images seem to be seen through a veil of tears, or through the stony indifference of dead eyes. There are so many examples, I am spoilt for choice. Even his titles convey so much: ‘The Empty Chapel of Your Eyes,’ ‘There’s a Fist Where the Heart Should Be,’ ‘My Heart is a Failed City.’ And the sound of this poetry! I have been blessed to hear Hopkins reading some of these poems, and he does so with such beauty and elegance, such Celtic grace.

In a collection such as this, it is inevitable that some poems are slighter than others, and in this instance I must say I was glad of it. Reading it as a whole is an intense—even harrowing—experience, and sometimes a lighter poem acts as a welcome resting place between acts. As it progresses, the book indicates at least a survival and an ability to find solace, even if it is “the solace of headstones.”

Christopher Hopkins is a poet who is considerate of his readers. I felt that this book does not only speak to his particular grief, but to any grief that comes with a sense of betrayal from the universe. I look forward to rereading it many times, and would urge you to buy it.

Rosemary McLeish has been writing for the past thirty years, mainly short stories and poetry, as well as articles for journals.

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