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All the Birds: Mark Totterdell, Littoral Press

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Mark Totterdell is the author of three previous collections of poetry: This Patter of Traces (Oversteps Books, 2014), Mapping (Indigo Dreams, 2018) and Mollusc (The High Window, 2021). His poems have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies and he has achieved success in many competitions. 

Taking his cue from the concluding stanza of ‘Adlestrop’ by Edward Thomas, “All the birds / Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire” have been moved to other counties. ‘Displaced’ might be a better word to use because everything in this collection speaks of the turmoil that man has wreaked upon nature through selfishness, greed and ignorance. We are living in different times now. Instead of stopping, “the diesel roars past Adlestrop”:


     Behind train windows sealed for good,

     through unseen shires, a crowd are hurled

     in air-conned, micro-climate hush,

     each in their private wi-fi world …


Totterdell is a poet who is very much engaged with the present moment. We get a sense of this from the opening poem which is called ‘Here’ (as opposed to ‘There’). He writes unflinchingly about nature as it is: nature in the raw. To the average town-dweller the countryside may be a place of beauty and rest but to those who live in rural areas, it is a place of hard graft and a matter of day to day survival. Totterdell writes of bleak winters battered by storms and the “pitiless chainsaw”, of “doomed red rubies” (Devon Ruby beef cattle) “in the mud”, trespassers on the railways, fly tipping (a “tangled bank [is] strewn / with all the bright detritus of our sins”), a butcher with his hanging carcasses, and displaced animals who are having to adjust to a new environment having lost their old habitats or who are struggling to adapt in situ to changing circumstances.

In ‘The Robin Singing Through the Traffic’s Din’ a bird strives to assert its territory: 


     Until his frail heart bursts beneath his skin

     as he belts out his final wordless word,

     the robin singing through the traffic’s din

     must alter to the altered world he’s in.


A similar theme emerges in ‘Ken Allen’ – a poem that may appear to be humorous on the surface but is tragic beneath. It is the story of a Bornean orangutan who was kept in captivity at San Diego zoo. A victim of his circumstances, he escaped many times, earning the nickname ‘Hairy Houdini’, only to be caught and brought back to his unnatural environment.

In keeping with several of the poems in Mollusc, a number of titles in this collection are headed up by scientific names. Thanks to Google I was able to translate ‘Grus’ to crane, ‘Marthasterias’ to starfish, ‘Branta’ to waterfowl and ‘Quetzlcoatlus’ to a type of pterosaur. 

As one would expect from the title, many birds fly through the pages of this book: skylarks, blackbirds, eagles, swifts, ravens, herons and gannets, to name but a few. There are also a handful of poems related to creatures of the shoreline. Two powerful poems about ash trees caught my attention, given the  publicity surrounding the phenomenon known as ash die-back. The effects of climate change loom large in a number of poems. In ‘2020’, Totterdell turns the focus on our forced confinement in lockdown during the Covid pandemic “while outside, all the world turns as it does / and as it has to turn, and as it will”. Nature has the last word.

In this collection, Totterdell reveals his passionate engagement with his native landscape, its geology and topography, its creatures and man’s encroachment on nature. His voice is an urgent one, proclaiming what needs to be heard.


Mark Totterdell, All the Birds, Littoral Press, £10


available from the poet

or from Littoral Press


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