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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Poet In His 90s Pens Speak, Old Parrot

Speak, Old Parrot
by Dannie Abse
Author's Web site: http://www.dannieabse.com
ISBN: 9780091944643
Genre: poetry

Available on Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0091944643/karelsoftw-21
Available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/book/speak-old-parrot/id616694158?mt=11
Hutchinson, 2013.
80 pp.
$27.95 (hardcover) and
$13.99 (eBook). 

Reviewed by Katelyn S. Eden

Dannie Abse, doctor, author, playwright, and most famously, poet, revisits many of the themes of his previous works in his most recent poetry collection, Speak, Old Parrot. Abse, prolific author and recent winner of the Wales Book of the Year Award, enchants and enthralls readers of every age with his musings on the themes of love, loss, death, medicine, and tradition.

The body of work aligns with the jewel-toned parrot on the cover, speaking to both the bird’s ability to talk of tragedy and hilarity alike, and to Abse’s ability to deal deftly and vividly with these primary elements throughout the collection. In Speak, Old Parrot, the lyrical and narrative elements that form the skeleton for many of Abse’s works are palpable; yet, Abse retains the clever witticisms, sharp imagery, and eloquent narrative style that he is known for. As Abse enjoys his ninetieth year in 2013, the motifs of aging and the frailty of existence are at the heart of the collection:

Now Time wastes me and there’s hardly time

to fuss for more vascular speech.


The aspen tree trembles as I do

and there are feathers in the wind.


Quick, quick,

speak, old parrot,

do I not feed you with my life?

(“Talking to Myself,” 1-2)


“Talking to Myself” and others in the collection share the unique and uncomfortable juxtaposition of bright mind and aging body and Abse adeptly captures this unique juncture in one’s life in this collection. Abse’s masterful handling of enjambment and spare, powerful diction are akin to his other collections, and especially the poems anthologized in On Doctoring. “Portrait of an Old Doctor,” too, highlights Abse’s multifaceted poetic style and the experiences that are the indelible thread in Abse’s works:

He had been a confidence man for the patient.

That’s how it was in The Theatre of Disease

and, at the final act, he had lifted

his stethoscope to listen as if to Mozart.


Then, silently, relatives and friends filed out.

No applause. None for Hippocrates’ art.

(“Portrait of an Old Doctor,” 5)


In Speak, Old Parrot, it is clear that Abse’s poems are designed to be savored; each beautiful, tragic, humorous, and lyrical layer affects the reader differently, and combined, such as in “Portrait of an Old Doctor,” the effect holds a certain power that only expert poets such as Abse can successfully wield. Abse’s compassion and humility as a physician shines through in this collection, and his reverence for humanity is truly unmatched.

On a more solemn vein, Speak, Old Parrot deals honestly and painfully with the themes of love and loss. “Moonbright,” a poem regarding the death of the speaker’s father, describes with raw emotion the last moments of the father’s life and the first moments of loss for the speaker:

At home, feeling hollow, I shamelessly wept

-whether for you or myself I do not know.

Tonight a bracing wind makes my eyes cry

while a cloud dociles an impudent moon

that is and was, and is again, and was.


Men become mortal the night their fathers die.

(“Moonbright,” 9)


The sheer weight of loss, the depth of pain that is clear in the poem, is enough to make heavy even the hardest of hearts; but Abse’s ability to display honest emotion through the masterful craftsmanship of the poetic line is what sets his poems apart from his renowned contemporaries, namely William Carlos Williams. In keeping with the shifty ventriloquist personality of the parrot that the collection draws its inspiration from, the poem following “Moonbright” is “Sunbright,” a delicate, dazzling rendering of the speaker’s first encounter with a beautiful woman. The collection is arranged not by subject matter, but rather in an arcing of human emotion, spanning from childlike wonder, to all-consuming lust, to love, to devastating pain and anger at death and loss.

Perhaps the most distinct and wonderful element of Abse’s collection, and his works in general, is his ability to effortlessly ensnare the reader in the heart of his work and tug him or her along, gently, through the spectrum of human emotion and experience. Anyone who reads Speak, Old Parrot will benefit from it. Young readers will relish the lively, passionate, travel-oriented poems; seasoned readers will savor the difficult truths of aging and reassuring tradition; and many readers will enjoy the Romantic undercurrent in the poems that deal with the subject of love present in the collection. From cover to cover, the reader becomes invested in the power of Abse’s words, the concentrated structures of his poems, and his unparalleled translation of human experience into ink on the page.

Speak, Old Parrot is a brilliant collection that is accessible to any reader. Abse challenges the reader to fully explore the power of the human frame and emotion, and it is truly a joy to extract the essence of the collection. Abse is a poetic titan and incomparable wordsmith, and Speak, Old Parrot is the inimitable concentration of poetry that speaks to almost all of his other collections. Speak, Old Parrot is the impressive flourish with which Abse began his ninetieth year, and he reveals no sign of slowing his unbelievable pace or work any time soon.

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1 comment:

lev weitzelski said...

Your review tantalizes my appetite for more. It reveals a passion for writing,an empathy for the reader and writer, and insightful warmth for the subjects.

Thank you, KSEden