A Murder of Crows is a terrible book. To be clear, it is very good poetry: finely crafted, brilliantly imagined, stunningly vivid. It is terrible only, but powerfully, in the true and classical sense of the word: it evokes a sense of terror in the reader, a kind of dark sublime. It is also a book that, like the birds that fill its pages, rises above the mundane. A Murder of Crows is a powerful exploration of violence and art, of terror and transcendence.
Thomas turns the bird-watcher’s hobby into opportunity for precisely observed instances of Tennyson’s “nature red in tooth and claw.” He signals the frankness of his observation in the book’s opening lines: “By cold, hunger, or the brutal / amusement of a cat, it probably / will die before I do” (“The Sparrow”). The startling combination, made even more forceful by the delaying line-break, of “brutal” and “amusement” is characteristic of Thomas’ tone in this book, which often gives us a vision of bird-life beyond good and evil. A typical example is the gull which descends from a pure sky to “the vile devourment of offal” only “because she wanted to, all / without the slightest twinge of guilt” (“All Because She Wanted To”). A Murder of Crows is a poetic Wild Kingdom narrated by Friedrich Nietzsche, and, like all the best wildlife documentarians, Thomas doesn’t flinch from vividly depicting this amorally violent avian world. Consider this image from “Starlings”:
the chunky males
by their necks,
from a birdhouse,
and drop them
like ripe figs.
These short lines in groups of three evoke the work of William Carlos Williams and appropriate his emphasis on precision of image, but this certainly isn’t chickens beside a wheelbarrow. Thomas here, as in all the poems of this book, is careful to keep concrete image in the forefront, letting the abstract implications make themselves felt by means of the picture before the mind’s eye. He need not tell us how to feel when he presents us, for instance, with the image of carrion crows pulling their beaks from dead flesh and “stringing it / into bracelets/ of soft, / gleaming rubies” (“Carrion Crows”). Thomas’ precision of image and concision of language ensures that the terror of each poem is intensely experienced by his reader.
Yet, there is more to this book than terror; there is also transcendence. Most of the poems are shaped into stanzas of a regular number of lines, thus enacting on the page the struggle of art to master terror. Like great war poets from Homer to Sassoon, Thomas seems driven by the imperative to make poetry from the darkness. The regular stanzas certainly don’t diminish the violence, but they do contain it within boundaries set by the poet. Such an effort to turn terror into art is perhaps the point behind the poem “Red-tailed Hawk,” which describes one of the book’s very few stuffed birds. The taxidermist’s work is described as a “masterpiece,” its “waxen beak” curved “[w]ith the trajectory / of violence.” As in Yann Martel’s recent novel, Beatrice and Virgil, the taxidermist is the poet’s doppelganger, making art from the terror. Thomas makes the point even more explicitly in “Of Five Crows Flying,” in which he makes from the sound of the birds overhead “the dissonant, / interminable sonata / of darkness.” Art never conquers terror in A Murder of Crows, but it also never submits to it. Amidst the blood and guts of “nature red in tooth and claw” art seems triumphant merely by virtue of its ability to exist in the darkness. It transcends by remaining.
A Murder of Crows is a disturbing and captivating book. In its singularity of subject matter it demonstrates an ambition often lacking in small-press poetry, and the ambition proves appropriate, as Thomas achieves both a unified effect and a philosophical cohesion. This book is certainly not for the faint-hearted, but true poetry never is. As Thomas admits in the book’s stunning final poem, his true purpose is, after all, to reveal “the ravenous, reeking / psyche of our kind.”