Poetry book of the month: How to Fly by Barbara Kingsolver – review

The novelist teaches lessons in miniature in this deft and entertaining collection

Whenever a novelist takes flight into poetry, one has, however unreasonably, misgivings – based on a received, under-examined idea of poetry as an exclusive vocation. And with a novelist of Kingsolver’s stature, the last thing one wants is to see her as an impostor. I had imagined myself putting How to Fly quietly aside, but instead – only a few poems in – found it to be irresistible, the purest pleasure to read. In an age where almost no one writes letters, this collection is a stand-in for a personal, entertaining and generous correspondence. Is this a way of saying Kingsolver is not a poet? Absolutely not. As a novelist, she is a smart craftswoman, at ease with the grand scale, and here proves herself a committed miniaturist, innovative with the shape of poems, at home with a villanelle and with a particular flair for last lines that concisely turn the tables.

Many of Kingsolver’s poems are written for, or about, other people – her husband, her family and friends (Walking Each Other Home gracefully explores the shared territory of a friendship). And what a friend she must be – and wry adviser. She launches her book with “how to” poems. Their light relief goes deep – they have a serious playfulness and are a reminder that poetry can help. In How to Drink Water When There Is Wine (never judge a poem by its title), sensible prohibitions are delightfully dismissed as “brick-shaped”. (In a later beguiling companion piece, Ghost Pipes, she reveals her own wild history). How to Be Married is, intriguingly, the weakest in the “how to” sequence. How to Get a Divorce has bittersweet stamina and How to Give Thanks for a Broken Leg – involving the luxurious indignities of bathtime – is a feelgood poem about feeling bad. Kingsolver’s wisdom and wit are always proportionate – she never misses the bigger picture. I loved the rough-and-ready resourcefulness of How to Be Hopeful and, in a wilfully ethereal register, the transformative title poem.

You might assume the Pellegrinaggio (Pilgrimage) section – about travels with her mother-in-law – to be skippable, but these poems, describing reuniting her American mother-in-law (of whom she is evidently very fond) with her Italian past, are charming. In a delightful later poem, Will, she gets her her to peel a huge pile of tomatoes and then starts to feel guilty about “the heartless tomato massif” which her 90-year-old sous chef is confronting:

Time slips away from us, comes back: I see
her steadfast, and my apology breaks over us
like an egg. I’ve held her here, she should go
have a rest. She only shrugs. I’m Italian.

And then the domestic moment drifts (as they often do at the kitchen table) into unnerving thoughts about time passing.

There are other complicated, ambiguous pieces here, too, like the fascinating My Mother’s Last Forty Minutes – which addresses what it is like not to be your mother’s favourite child, as you watch her dying. Kingsolver’s most recent novel Unsheltered reminded us that she is a writer of vivid conscience and the last section of this collection quietly denounces humans as “fool creatures” who know (in Great Barrier) how to weep for Notre Dame but fail to halt the tragic destruction of the Great Barrier Reef – a cathedral of another kind. But Kingsolver is a celebrator by inclination and revels in positive relationships with nature. More than one diverting poem about sheep-shearing ought to prepare us for Where It Begins, a triumphant longer piece about, surprisingly, knitting – a glorious skein that pulls this collection together.

How to Drink Water When There Is Wine

How to stay at this desk when the sun
is barefooting cartwheels over the grass –

How to step carefully on the path that pulls
for the fleet unfettered gait of a deer –

How to go home when the wood thrush
is promising the drunk liquid bliss of dusk –

How to resist the kiss, the body forbidden
that plucks the long vibrating string of want –

How to drink water when there is wine –

Once I knew all these brick-shaped things, took them
For the currency of survival.

Now I have lived long and I know better.

How to Fly (In Ten Thousand Easy Lessons) by Barbara Kingsolver is published by Faber (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15


Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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