Whisper Songs by Tony Birch
2021 is the year of Tony Birch, with two new books: one short story collection (Dark as Night, August) and one poetry collection. Birch has always been a beautiful writer, and it feels particularly fortunate that we as readers are able to reap the rewards of such a productive period of his writing career.
In the poem that introduces the collection, Anne-Marie Te Whiu declares that Birch’s ‘words are constellations of memories / his heart beats across hemispheres and time’. This feels particularly true of Whisper Songs as it is dedicated to Birch’s brother, Wayne, who died in 2018. Much of the first section (‘Blood’) recalls childhood and the bonds of family, as well as moments of tragedy. As a reader, I felt warmly invited into Birch’s personal life with his precise imagery: ‘red bicycles ring tandem / slalom empty streets’; ‘catches the wind in infant hands’.
I particularly enjoyed the way Birch interweaves historical documents and archives into the poems. By using the structure of historical records to construct ‘The Eight Truths of Bhouta Khan’, Birch depicts the absurdities of racist bureaucracy in early 1900s Australian immigration acts. Perhaps even more compelling are the poems that use documents from Birch’s own life and family history. I think it is particularly important as cultural history, and as a practice of poetics, to use poetry to convey the realities of First Nations people and the personal effects of invasion and colonisation. It is poetry as witness statement and testimony, and readers who enjoy the works of Natalie Harkin, Alison Whittaker and Evelyn Araluen will be similarly interested in Birch’s poetry, though Whisper Songs is perhaps less dense on the page.
This collection offers up Birch’s life ‘for your inspection’, and I recommend readers accept such a generous invitation.