White pamphlet with wide mustard band across it and a black and white photo in this of a hummingbirdThe Taxidermist, Shazea Quraishi

Verve Poetry Press, 2020     £7.50

Framing her subject

A set of poems about taxidermy is not something I’d naturally be drawn to. But this sequence won me over cannily. There were a number of reasons (devices?). One, the poet shared a kind of diary — so, here’s part of ‘Day 2’:

The washing machine on   sound of it company   a blanket
round her   she falls asleep on the sofa

I’m easily drawn in: can, of course, relate. The diary-like entries are in the third person — perhaps unexpectedly. Actually, this helps me picture the scene — where the poems about her small subjects are in the first person (as well as in a different typeface): ‘his modest truth disarms me’, reads ‘a white mouse, a feeder mouse’. Strangely, these variations help hold the sequence together. It’s clever.

I think the other big pull for me was introducing another — and I think the only named — character. A local boy called Havi, who takes to visiting regularly. There’s an almost The Bone People feel to this — strikingly achieved in so few words. This is from ‘Day’ (she loses track of which day as she goes) on page 17:

He is wearing the same blue t-shirt   freshly laundered
shy looks towards the animals on the shelf
She shows him the mouse curled up
inside a pale green china cup.

By these means, the impression I form is warm: the poet, I think, staying temporarily and alone somewhere for three weeks, conducting her experiments in preserving small animals — which is, of course, exactly what she’s doing in these poems. ‘Rufous Hummingbird’ starts: ‘sun god in ruins / no song   no humming’.

There’s so much life buzzing through the pages, I was left in no doubt this is a fascination with life, not only its end. And there are also quiet justifications (for the practice) set unobtrusively within the text. So, on page 20, ‘Yes   but   these are not trophies   I want / She grasps   makes a gesture of prayer   of thanks’.

I felt taken on a small, significant journey by this sequence, and glad to have encountered the treasures and surprises framed in these pages.

Charlotte Gann