The poems in Murmurations are culled from a notebook that Dwyer kept during the pandemic, written across each wave of the Coronavirus pandemic as they hit England. Forced to shield during each lockdown, cut off from the the normalities of children, grandchildren and life beyond her house, Dwyer turned to other areas of focus to dwell upon. There are three main themes at play throughout the collection: the comfort immediately found in her own garden; the wonders of space; and the sense of family, keenly missed throughout each wave. These three themes in themselves may not seem like natural bedfellows, but Dwyer balances her attention skilfully across them.
It is perhaps in the poems of the garden and of nature that Murmurations succeeds the most: not like the keen botanical slant of Michael Longley or Jean Bleakney perhaps, but more the sheer awe and childlike fascination closer to that of Mary Oliver. In the opening poem, 'Solace of a Small Bird: Wren,' the observer marks the passage of the day by the comings and goings of the bird:
it is enough,
despite these tremors
which shake the world
This sets the mood for the book: to find solace, comfort and even entertainment in what we already have at our possession, when shut off from the rest of the world. Tickseed, acorns, birds, fern, crane flies and more are all part of Dwyer's line-up, with delight found in each.
Dwyer also takes us outside of Earth, to imagine scenes set in the allure of deep space, with reflection on meteor showers and the Hubble telescope. 'Last Letter from Mars' gives voice to the Mars Rover, close to the end of its mission: 'I am tired, my battery is low, | A storm is coming.' Here is a hint of death, and with so much of it ubiquitous on Earth, even Mars can't escape a death of sorts. Elsewhere, Dwyer conjures up the image of 'this small blue planet | caught safe within the Heliosphere' ('Star Map'), and one can't help but think that in the middle of a persistent pandemic, the use of the word 'safe' can only be ironic.
The opening of the poem 'mineshelf' neatly manages to weave the subjects of family and space together, giving a new twist to a common image seen in space exploration:
separates from the mothership,
embarks on its own journey
is akin to that moment
when a child
Dwyer has moments of such Brautigan-esque inventiveness dotted through the book: people who 'fossilise at an early age,' the fall of post through a letterbox like 'a rapid flutter ... of sparrows,' crows picking moss off a roof to line their nests with, and using their feathers as payment. At times, however, there is an over-reliance on abstractions: the vision of meteors filled the observer with 'awe and delight,' a person and their dog return home from a walk 'curiously satisfied'; there is the insomniac's plea for sleep to 'catch my soul.'
None of these abstractions let the reader into what the speaker is really feeling, which is a shame, as Dwyer does display the ability to evoke empathy and affinity elsewhere. 'To the Other Side of Truro' charts the local landscape seen on a journey to visit family, beholding a sequence of natural marvels; and yet, when the destination is reached, granddaughters run outside in greeting 'and still, | we cannot hold each other.' The absence of a daughter is felt as 'a hard knot of loss | behind by breastbone.' Seasons change, yet Dwyer feels as if she is 'caught in amber,' absurdly preserved through the inertia of lockdowns.
All of this takes the reader back to their own sense of longing and isolation felt through lockdown, being cut off from loved ones, and the key poem of the collection, 'The Wood-wide Web.' There is little direct address to the pandemic within Murmurations; in fact, the first mention of the C-word, 'Covid,' isn't until over thirty poems deep. But here, we see the tying together of family, togetherness distance and the impact of the pandemic in one clever extended metaphor:
mycelium in intricate webs
gossip to the trees,
who is sick,
who is threatened.
The trees take care
of their vulnerable.
Within the realm of post-pandemic literature, there is this awareness of the need for others, but there is also anger. In 'Reading Home,' there is mention of 'countless deaths | and the fall of Troy.' It doesn't take a great leap of imagination and reinvention to see 'Troy' as 'Tory.' 'A Murder of Crows' (again, the hint of death found in the collective noun) gleefully wishes for the downfall of Boris Johnson. The sense of anger though is subtle, not overwrought, and Dwyer does well not to let it distract from her main themes.
In 'Skeins,' a shrewdly constructed poem of overlapping sentences, we find the clash of escapism (the comforts of nature and family, the gazing into space) with reality: people in body-bags, overworked nurses, grief. It's a good exhibition piece for the whole of the book. Dwyer may not always push and stretch language as much as other poets, but she is comfortable in letting the subject matter speak for itself, to be that mirror held up to the world, which we all need while still reeling from the impact of Covid. And despite the lingering sense of death, there is much warmth in these poems.
Colin Dardis is a neurodivergent writer, editor and sound artist from Northern Ireland. His most recent book is Apocrypha: Collected Early Poems (Cyberwit, 2022). His work, largely influenced by his experiences with depression and Asperger's, has been published widely throughout Ireland, the UK and USA.
You can read more about Murmurations by Clare Dwyer on Creative Writing at Leicester here.