Winner of the Roland Mathias Poetry Award 2012
Gwyneth Lewis's highly inventive Sparrow Tree puts nature writing in a spin, presenting a huge variety of birds, both British and American: blue tits, blackbirds, egrets, juncos, starlings, herons and hummingbirds as well as the sparrows of the title. The book explores birds as mouthpieces for inhuman song and the wild inside the mind.
Launching flights of avian fancy or fantasy on several levels, Sparrow Tree moves from birdsong as proto-language to birds as decorative beings. The collection includes her already well-known How to Knit a Poem, commissioned by BBC Radio 4, and ends with images of the human word as a form of love.
Praise for Sparrow Tree
'one of the most gifted writers of her generation.'
'These poems work especially well if read aloud, when the lovely half-rhymes and alliteration are fully audible.'
'The impression is of someone deeply involved in the process of making.'
Tara Bergin, Poetry Review
'The power of Gwyneth Lewis's work lies in the exchange of an underlying troubled spirit for a visionary opening on to a world able to accommodate it. Her latest collection is mostly spare and restrained, some of its poems as weightless as birds flitting from branch to branch.'
'The bird poems - stark, uncompromising, onomatopoeic - do not constitute nature poetry as we might in one form recognise it: starling clouds notwithstanding, they are neither descriptive nor epiphanous but essentially co-mingling and sub-textual.'
This volume finds Lewis holding course on "mighty tides" with the aplomb of a mariner, the keel "cold in the current", the mast "inscribing water like a restless pen/ writing a fading wake!" It's a gull's-eye view.'
Nigel Jarrett, Acumen
'Gwyneth Lewis... is my favourite modern poet... Sparrow Tree did not disappoint.'
'I recommend this book to all readers who love poetry and to those who don't.'
'Gwyneth Lewis's poems put nature writing in a spin.'
Sparrow Tree by Gwyneth Lewis shows a poet at the height of her powers. On one level this is nature poetry, particularly poetry about birds, but nothing is ever quite as it seems with this innovative, brave poet. The flights of imagination encompass a rich flock of metaphors that give these poems real power... These poems dig deep into the human psyche whilst retaining humour and warmth... The poems... are alive with precise language and emotion.
Gwyneth Lewis' much admired, prize-winning poetry scintillates with wit... This is in line with Lewis' forte for 'serious play': 'play' because she is resourceful, inventive, teasing; 'serious' because she explores everything fearlessly, from relationships on a knife-edge to religious belief, from writing poems to resisting cancer, from fighting despair and 'self-harm' to talking a splinter in a child's heel... She also seems to be experimenting... This is exciting. Lewis has always been able to go out on a limb. Now she pushes out further.
"Since winning the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival Prize in 1995, Gwyneth Lewis (Wales's first National Poet) has steadily gained recognition from critics as one of the most gifted writers of her generation... These poems work especially well if read aloud, when the lovely half-rhymes and alliteration are fully audible... The impression is of someone deeply involved in the process of making."
"[an] impressive, restrained collection....The most lyrical writing is to be found in "Birder" (an elegy for an aunt), packed with metaphor and a rigorous, energetic music that once more addresses "the end" - "When I die / I want to hear birds ricochet/ Outside my window... I'd like/ To deserve this litany:/ Woodpecker, waxwing, chickadee."
"Gwyneth Lewis is my favourite modern poet... It is a privilege to have this new slim volume of poems in my hands... Sparrow Tree did not disappoint. I found the poems... colourful, poignant, funny and thought provoking... Every poem has characters who come alive with Gwyneth's gifted use of words... I recommend this book to all readers who love poetry and to those who don't - I would say, just try it - and see for yourself how beautifully written and accessible Gwyneth Lewis's poetry is."
"Gwyneth Lewis's previous collection A Hospital Odyssey was received well by critics, and this latest collection should be no different. Sparrow Tree presents poetry ostensibly about the huge variety of birds native to both the UK and America, but on delving deeper into the natural imagery the reader is presented with the wilds of the human mind as habitat for these birds, and the birds themselves as mouthpieces for human emotion... Wales's erstwhile National Poet has much to offer - as Elaine Feinstein puts it in the Guardian: "Such exuberant invention... The range of reference is so wide, we are intoxicated by it.". "
"With their inventive internal rhymes and sprawling register, the both lilt and syncopate. But music is clearly different from song - the one played, the other voiced - and it is this distinction from which the poems in Sparrow Tree seem to rise ... These are poems that gather darkly and peck. They feint and play hazardously with their beaks and sometimes take to wing.... These are poems more concerned with the mechanisms of song - both human and avian - than they are with the song itself, and it is this resistance that makes the poems so often mesmerizing... What Lewis pulls off... feels like an avian feat: she strikes a fine, improbable balance between gravity and levity. Even as her speaker struggles to access the language, to get the voice right, she gets us off the ground and ungiddily bids us, look."
New Welsh Review
"The subjects she treats in this affecting volume are those of pastoral elegy... Et in Arcadia ego. Yet tone is light and vital... Cryptic and quipping equivocators, the birds that call through these poems are as enigmatic as they are emblematic. You will not find them in the trees outside your window Lewis's birds explode in and out of the eye. They invade grammar and meaning with their calls."
Sparrow Tree - Gwyneth Lewis
When a poem starts to nag my brain, teasing it out in words is a private act of hope against humiliation. Will what I have in mind work, or will it flop? Luckily, I have a Discarded Poems file for failures, entirely botched jobs never reach print. The reason I work beyond all reason at poems is in the hope of reaching someone else's mind. This is because my life has been so enriched by reading and the glimpses that gives you of other people's worlds. So, to be shortlisted for the Roland Mathias Welsh Book of the Year prize is proof that some of the poems I sent in a bottle have reached shore.
You'd think that writing would get easier as you do more of it. Sparrow Tree is my eighth book of poems but knowing more about the craft makes achieving what I want even harder. Simplicity is much more difficult to effect than something that sounds good but means little. The book before this one was A Hospital Odyssey, a long narrative poem, so I decided to write short ones for a change.
The Sparrow Tree of the title refers to a bush outside our house with a nest in it and what happened to its occupants. Over the years, I've spent a lot of time bird watching so a series of bird poems seemed a natural subject for me. Traditionally used as images for poets, my poem-birds are quite tricksy and, by no means all benign. Perhaps they're symbols of the human mind as much as descriptions of starlings, hummingbirds and the unidentifiable "small brown jobs."
The book as a whole is about speaking. There's a love poem to my husband which concentrates on his inability to pronounce a certain Spanish place name: San Juan de Aznalfarache. There's also a series called "How to Knit a Poem," which were written for a series on the craft for BBC Radio 4. I look at the art and science of knitting and construct a Memorial Sweater for myself. Research shows that the small eye movements associated with knitting can help with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression.
My advice to anybody who wants to write is: do it. This isn't as easy as it sounds. Trying to write is certainly a good way to get housework done. Read a lot, admire what's good and never give up.