The Collective Nouns for Birds: a review

The Collective Noun for Birds Amanda Huggins

In this beautiful, very accomplished first poetry collection, Amanda Huggins demonstrates a range of concerns, from growing up to love and loss all interlinked by the sea.  Whatever theme she is examining her language is precise and evocative with no word wasted.

Out Chasing Boys focuses on that innocent time of adolescence when ‘we revered those rake-limbed lads / … as though they were gods’, and in The New Knowing there’s the sense of expectancy and hope which is so acute at that age, when the narrator and her friend know that ‘life will be good and worth the wait.’ Again, in Dizzy With It, she evokes an intense feeling of life opening up to all kinds of possibilities – if they practise playing their instruments enough she and her friend are convinced they could become rock stars, while the reader is aware of the limitations life imposes.

The theme of loss is palpable in a poignant poem, The Names of Seaweed and Collective Nouns for Birds, where lists of impossible-sounding seaweeds and birds are used to remember a father who worked at sea and obviously loved language, in the poem ‘drowning with the names still on his tongue’. In another poem the possible loss of a partner is skilfully evoked in one precise image: ‘four small nails… ‘ which have been left on the kitchen table are ‘weightless, featherlight, yet sharp as loss’. This precise use of imagery is a strength that is evident throughout the collection – in Scars, a list of ordinary childhood scars is suddenly shifted into altogether more sinister territory when the most recent mark on the skin is ‘a square of flesh / incised, removed and cauterised / … I watch it fade with hope.’ Here the subtle play on words suggests both the fading of the scar and the fading of hope.

All I Can Offer paints a double image of the sea as a force of change where ‘jewels of clouded sea glass’ offer hope that grief will fade while at the same time, knowing that we have no control over it ‘wrestling in vain with restless tides’; a lovely line where the sibilance echoes the sound of the sea itself. Later in the collection a poem about the death of a cat at the vets is delicate and moving: ‘So brief a life, so brief a death.’

While the dominant theme of this collection may be loss, there are also moments of wry humour – old ways of living are mourned when people from the city buy second homes by the sea and ‘paint over the past / with Farrow and Ball’. Or the poet recalls a relationship that came to nothing when she meets an old boyfriend, Chris Clarke-with-an-e, at a wedding whose ‘kisses stung my lips / with the tang of sherbet lemons’. In a poem which reminded me strongly of Helen Dunmore’s posthumously published collection, Inside the Wave, Amanda Huggins uses her mother’s love of changing light to pinpoint a sense of mourning, travelling from a memory of saving insects from drowning in a pond in Italy, to imagining how her mother would, if she were there, talk of ‘the gold-green light of an English afternoon’.

The Collective Nouns for Birds is a very accessible and enjoyable poetry collection which will also withstand several re-readings. Amanda Huggins’ poems are technically proficient, sensitive and full of pathos. A strong first collection.


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