December 7th, 2022
When the average person thinks of poetry, they start having war flashbacks to their high school English class. They imagine being forced to read the works of long-dead stuffy old men who wrote in a version of English so antiquated that it might as well have been written in another language. What they do not imagine is the variety of exciting, gripping poetry being written by poets today, like Sadie Maskery and her new poetry collection, Shouting at Crows. The collection is masterful in technique, rich in meaning, and an engaging read that explores how the loss of or search for something impacts, reveals, and changes us.
The first poem of the collection, aptly named “Beginnings”, sets up these themes. It is a poem about potential, beginnings, and the search for connection. Maskery explores this by presenting us with a speaker experiencing “attraction at first sight”. The speaker is drawn toward a stranger and time freezes, a potential partner and companion are identified:
a pause in the celestial clock;
a tick of time suspended,
There is an element of destiny in the poem, integrated by the use of words like “celestial” and the lines “we are magnets, an exquisite tug / dilating pupils, veins, souls,”. The implication of “soulmates”, of the inevitability of this meeting and this potential connection, is further emphasized by the lines “the universe played this moment / to infinity before we were born” and again by the repetition at the end of the poem where the speaker says
[…] no I don’t think we’ve
actually been introduced, although
we’ve met. We’ve met. We’ve met.
Many of Maskery’s poems cover similar topics, but each poem presents a new facet or unravels a different experience of seeking or losing. For example, the poem “Eternal” is about the loss of memory. Though short, it is a sharp little poem that reminds us of one of the great failings of our species: we forget. Maskery sums up the sad reality of our unreliable and limited memories in a few lines: “I don’t really remember what to regret / or who I said I would never forget.” Another poem about loss is “Retirement” which, unlike “Eternal”, explores how the loss of intimacy can change how people in a relationship interact. The title implies that the speaker and their partner have “retired” from the relationship. They’re no longer “working” to improve or maintain it but remain in the relationship anyways. Maskery uses food imagery to characterize the speaker’s feelings about it. She describes the life of the couple as “[…] unappetizing, / […] a reheated / yellow sticker ready meal.” It is not bad, just disappointing. There is some subversion of expectations, however. When we think of the loss of intimacy, we imagine people either trying to rekindle it or accepting the loss and leaving. Neither the speaker nor their partner has left the relationship, and there is this plea towards the middle of the poem:
please, sit here on the sofa.
I promise to shift so the warmth
of our bodies cannot be shared.
The use of “promise” implies a concerted effort to not try and is quietly heartbreaking, but begs the question of why even bother to pantomime intimacy when there is no desire to engage in it? We are left to question ourselves and the speaker on this point. “Eternal” is an honest depiction of our unfortunate ability to forget, even the things we want or swore to remember. “Retirement” is a touching and honest depiction of what it might feel and look like when intimacy just isn’t there anymore. Both explore loss and its many facets and impacts in a sincere way.
Maskery’s poetry is honest even when steeped in metaphor, powerful without becoming melodramatic, and sensitive without pulling its punches. These qualities are clearest in her poems about loss and death. My favorite example is the poem “there is a beach”, which uses the imagery of shells to explore the grief of losing a child. It begins with an observation of crabs on a beach and the “infant faces etched into their backs”. There is a pause halfway through the poem, a “…” as if the speaker needs to catch their breath before continuing, the emotional weight requiring the speaker to steel themselves to continue talking. Then the connection between an infant to shells is repeated again at the end of the poem,
in our yearning as we recognize
the features of our dead child
in the swirls of a discarded shell,
hear waves through its emptiness.
Maskery takes an image we associate with life, joy, and childhood, listening to seashells to hear the ocean, and subverts it. She repurposes it to characterize grief: how it ebbs and flows but is always there, how it comes in waves. The grief and feeling of loss being a constant part of life is an idea explored in other poems about death within the collection, such as “Not Fade Away” and “Pass On”.
Throughout Shouting at Crows, Maskery shows off her ability to manipulate structure and language to maximize the impact of each poem. I particularly enjoyed her manipulation of line structure in “Zoom”. In it, the loss of connection on a Zoom call parallels the loss of connection between two people. Maskery’s clever use of structure allows her to give us a visual representation of that conversation while maintaining the specific effects of awkward, broken off and overlapping speech present in calls with unstable connection. The lines are made of incomplete phrases scattered across the page and the words are repeated, have inconsistent spacing, or are fused together. The lines “h a v eyoutried no it’s / B R E A K I N G (up)” and “what did you / you / it’s too / late / no it’stoo llllate” are great examples of this. Maskery utilizes similar manipulations of line structure in other poems, such as “holy”, “Fallen”, and “end scene”.
It would be remiss of me not to discuss the titular poem, “Shouting at Crows”. The title is interesting considering how soft much of the language in the poem is. Maskery uses words like “muffling”, “heartbeat soft”, and “velvet” which are at odds with strong language like “shouting”. They add a gentleness to the sound of the poem, and the use of alliteration and rhyme further heightens the softness and rhythm of the poem. This softness is juxtaposed with ideas of transitions and endings, of death. The poem begins with
Surrender your dead memories.
Brush away the film of flesh,
your hair, eyes, lips, to mist.
Peace. Be still now.
What you were will yet exist
Maskery goes on to integrate nature imagery into the presented idea that the dead never really leave; they are still present because death is part of the cycle of things. The poem is full of references to moments of transition in nature: “leaves falling” refers to the changing of the seasons and the coming of autumn and death, and “owls calling” and “the setting sun” refer to the change of day into night and the shift from light to dark. Death is just another transition. It is fitting for a collection of poetry broadly connected by transitions, by beginnings and endings, to have the poem it is named for be filled with transitional moments and cycles of change.
Shouting at Crows is a poetry collection that demands your attention and sticks with you days after reading it. Sadie Maskery’s writing will enchant and haunt you as she reveals the many ways in which we search for and lose people, relationships, and a multitude of other things. Her mastery of language and imagery, her subversion of expectations, and the calculated way in which she manipulates line structure truly sets her work apart, Shouting at Crows has definitely earned a spot on every reader’s bookshelf.
You can buy Sadie’s book, published by Alien Buddha Press, on Amazon:
Halina Stone (they/them)
is a fiction writer, poet, and fantasy lover hailing from New Jersey. They studied Creative Writing in undergrad at Fairleigh Dickinson University and are pursuing a second Master’s Degree. When not writing, they can be found taking care of their army of succulents or sampling wares at various local cafes.