Poetry - bird of winter

Tony Cross is reading all the books and poems shortlisted for this year's Forward Prizes for Poetry. Here are his thoughts on bird of winter, the debut collection by Alice Hiller...

This is Alice Hiller's debut collection, and it is a highly personal one. She uses archaeology, specifically the excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii, as a metaphor for excavating her own experience from the ashes and pumice of her past.

Hiller was abused by a member of her family as a child. This collection explores that terrible experience sometimes and how it impacts the victim. It is, at points, not the easiest of reads but the way Hiller uses Herculaneum and Pompeii is so right. Part of me realises that explaining it in more detail is just going to spoil the impact of it. Part of me wanted to say 'clever' instead of 'right' but right feels more...correct. There is a 'rightness of things' that I think is stronger than cleverness. Cleverness feels cold. Rightness feels natural. But I realise this might just be my weird personal take on the world.

Hiller does interesting things with form too. She exploits the topography of the page. Sometimes almost as word paintings, 'her door is missing' on p35 being a perfect example. That also uses other people's words. It's as much art as it is poetry.

There are also the 'erasures'. These are poems made by taking other people's texts, whether that is Latin texts, such as Martial's epigrams, or archaeological works and creating poems from them by erasing words and sentences. Sometimes you feel poets are trying too hard to do interesting things with layout and text. As if they lack faith in the words to do the job on their own. Sometimes they get carried away with their own cleverness. But, in Hiller's case, these things work. They feel like the right (there's that word again) choice.

This is a book of right choices.

I can't recommend this highly enough and it is such a strong work for a debut collection.

"there will always be the city
beneath this city charted by no one
where columns of stone tears
cling to the ceilings"

from sea level, p59

Follow Tony on Twitter @Lokster71

About The Forward Prizes

The Forward Prizes are a celebration for those who love contemporary poetry, in association with the Forward Arts Foundation. The winners of this year's prizes will be announced at a ceremony on 24th October. Here are the shortlists:

The 2021 Forward Prize for Best Collection
Kayo Chingonyi – A Blood Condition (Chatto & Windus)
Tishani Doshi – A God at the Door (Bloodaxe Books)
Selima Hill – Men Who Feed Pigeons (Bloodaxe Books)
Luke Kennard – Notes on the Sonnets (Penned in the Margins)
Stephen Sexton – Cheryl’s Destinies (Penguin Poetry)
The 2021 Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection

Caleb Femi – Poor (Penguin Poetry)
Alice Hiller – bird of winter (Pavillion Poetry)
Cynthia Miller – Honorifics (Nine Arches Press)
Holly Pester – Comic Timing (Granta Poetry)
Ralf Webb – Rotten Days in Late Summer (Penguin Poetry)

The 2021 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem

Fiona Benson – ‘Androgeus’ (Times Literary Supplement)
Natalie Linh Bolderstone – ‘Middle Name with Diacritics’ (National Poetry Competition)
John McCullough – ‘Flower of Sulphur’ (Poetry London)
Denise Riley – ‘1948’ (Poetry Ireland Review)
Nicole Sealey – ‘Pages 22-29, an excerpt from The Ferguson Report: An Erasure’ (Poetry London)

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