A Triptych of Birds & A Few Loose Feathers
By Pratibha Castle
Published by The Hedgehog Poetry Press
Reviewed by Andrea Walker, July 2022
A Triptych of Birds & A Few Loose Feathers by Pratibha Castle begins with a dedication to her mother and the poem “Heartsease.” The name of a wild pansy in Europe found in the meadows, the poem’s title suggests a theme of peace. The speaker’s pleasure at the sight of a volery of long-tailed tits, a charming little bird with the cutest song ever, foreshadows the presence of birds throughout the poems. In this forty-eight-page collection of twenty-four poems, the poet captures the story of a childhood along with some of the events that went awry.
The literary triptych flows from childhood, to young adult, to maturity with themes of childhood memories to disillusionment, and eventually peace of mind. The series of events and memories are told with a bit of the magic one would expect in Ireland and England. Allusions abound to places with romantic names like South Downs, Brighton, Kensington Gardens, Notting Hill, Maida Vale, Finchley, and Benbulben Mount.
The reader will sense peace of mind in the opening pastoral set in “South Downs.” The poet sets a mystical mood with an image of Dryads who “lean in, anoint me with murmured prayers.” It also contains the first loose feather “amongst the leaves.” “A Celtic Spell” continues the mystic mood with “tales of Celtic lore, of a blackbird’s luck,” and how the blackbird’s good luck brings the speaker’s bad luck.
In an early example, she compares her father to “Paidrag—Who drove the snakes out of Ireland” as she remembers accompanying her father to work the Irish soil. A robin watches keenly for worms, “his song a crystal cataract of merry.” Her father disappears from her life, which makes her believe he must be a saint, but he reappears later at her school bringing books and toys. Her mother promptly transfers her to another school. There, the head nun is not so nice because her mother cannot afford to give her gifts. Evidently, “Paidrag banished more than snakes.”
The poem “Riddles” begs the question why do parents behave in unexplained ways. The question is posed to her father, “How could you let her snatch me from you?” followed by numerous incidents, puzzling to a child, ending with wondering why her parents never smile that way at one another. The first of several sexual allusions appears here in the guise of “the purpose of stamens in flowers” while the disapproving mother “purses citrus lips, slams the door, and flays all life out of the breakfast dishes.”
The poet’s eye for resemblances is illustrated in “Drowning” where the speaker almost drowns at the beach in Brighton and no one notices. The suffocating reminds her of her mother when she scrubs and wrings out a sheet that was stained with blood. One wonders about the bloodstain and why her mother scoured it so brutally. The stain “stubborn as sin” hints at sin, especially since “the blight of that day lingered.”
Several poems offer enough subtle sexual allusion to pique the reader’s interest. Suggestive language in “Under the Bridge” implies a sexual event. This theme is also hinted at in the “Homework” paragraph her father orders her to destroy. “Exodus” addresses the issue of the priest sinning vicariously through the Confessional. This poem leads the reader to question who is guilty here, the young girl who confesses “I slept with him,” or the priest who eagerly asks “exactly what did you do?” She seems to be tempting the priest, but says her Hail Marys and exits “absolved.”
“Plums” offers the preview of a turning point within the pages. The poet writes of buried words, hopes, and dreams then returns in the last stanza, a woman who exhumes and enjoys her poetry and shares it with the world. “The Only One Who Loves You” begins with leaving home at eighteen in anger and frustration. The speaker packs her bag and sets out to prove she is worthy of love. Several years of searching and wandering take her through some wild and strange times, nights of dancing, music, and musicians. Places and activities like “chanting mantras with Ram Dass in a basement in Notting Hill,” a squat in Maida Vale, crashing in a Highgate commune “spooning marmalade from a jar half-full, recycled from a skip” (British slang for dumpster) reveal an adventurous Bohemian lifestyle. She almost believed herself “deserving of love” near the end when the night her mother dies, she discovers “Love is an ether you can choke or float in.”
After a tumultuous childhood and hippie youth, later poems relate a calmer sense of acceptance. The speaker acknowledges her mother’s love, accepts the mistakes, forgives the pains of childhood and adolescent injuries, but doesn’t forget. The serenity of “Dawn Walk” brings resolution to a more mature speaker. But the calm of the sparkling sea, “mysteries clammed in sand and heart,” sun seeping through the clouds still do not bring peace as the speaker misses a chance meeting with her mother and hurries on. “On Reaching Heaven” portrays a warm memory of her and her mother baking a favorite cake together, the speaker wishing she had dropped by or phoned more often. Peace is found, at last, in the two final poems. First, in the “Refuge” of the wild garden with myriad flowers, “emerald jewel beetles,” and the blackbird, sparrows, woodpecker, and finch the collection is named for. The book ends with a funeral. “Pipe’s Wake” is played with a tin whistle and a “timpani of droplets on the window.”
Castle’s pages will surprise readers with their bluntness, delight with vivid imagery, and sadden with melancholy awareness. The collection, populated with a wide variety of birds, provides purposeful moments of connection. Readers will discover loose feathers for themselves.
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