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An Aviary of Small Birds review – a beautiful, painful, pitch-perfect debut

The stillbirth of Karen McCarthy Woolf’s son is the powerful emotional core of this deft, unsentimental collection

Poetry collections tend to be miscellaneous. They say: all change here, please as one alights from one poem and steps into the next – this is the reader’s undertaking. One of the most unusual things about Karen McCarthy Woolf’s debut is that it is held together by a single event – in a sense, a tragic non-event – the stillbirth of her son, Otto, in August 2009, and it is this emotional core that holds the work together, gives it its concentration, charge and flow. An Aviary of Small Birds is a collection that can, with the exception of a handful of poems, be read as a narrative. Otto’s death gives birth to the book.

There is nothing conventional or chronological about McCarthy Woolf’s approach. In the poem entitled Of August, several pages in, she turns her life into copy – were the subject not so painful – in a playful way. Two agents and a couple of publishers have attended a “panel discussion” at a university. On the train home, a student writes down the synopsis of a novel she plans one day to submit to them:

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