Birds Knit My Ribs Together has a meditational quality, timeless as nature itself, where we experience Barnett’s intimacy with birds. It’s a sharply observed, linguistically lively, lyrical collection which focuses almost exclusively on his deep and long-lasting relationship with avian life. This is a world almost entirely swept clean of people, and with the exception of a handful of poems, of other animals too.

A successful photographer, naturalist and artist, Barnett suffered a decade of illness which confined him to his living room. His world became the view through the window. He swapped the people, job, relationships and fully working body of his previous life for a garden full of birds which kept him company through his illness. Much perhaps can be explained by this.

In ‘Curse’

earth’s core pulls me towards itself
. . . life, I curse you too
you punctured me
the air that rushed out was all that I had . . .”

Barnett relishes nature as a healing place where he can be alone with his thoughts. Alone, perhaps, but not lonely. In ‘Set the Air’ –

“I came this way yesterday
but through different fields
not spider-worked like these

they were there, yes
but not on the planet we know
with people, dogs, roads and bottles.

The poems are often joyously inventive. In ‘Facts’

. . . this morning
a barn owl flew the moon home
and a wood pigeon clapped twice
to hey-presto the sun
landscape’s liquid bubbled up
and set as silhouetted deer

I might have wished for greater variety of subject, but what Barnett has achieved here is an impressive depth of focus; a philosophical duet between himself and his family of birds.

Some of these poems offer insights into how illness can loosen the habit of seeing things through the prism of utility. In ‘Just Sitting’, the poet is too ill to venture out, but

. . . here in this garden I’ll let nature wait on me
hand and foot, and all the senses . . .

I’m rooted to the spot, but I have roots
today I cannot walk
everything is here

There’s a tantalizing glimpse of Barnett as a child looking out of the window ‘not in a human way but like a blackbird looking for worms’. I’d like to have seen more poems such as ‘Coastal Footpath’ where people take their place within the landscape:

all these plucked lives,
these men, women, children
now held up like flowers

on the coastal footpath
as they go past the window,
fleshed out shadows all

with an angle to the ground,
accounting for conditions
correcting for the slope

Barnett’s tenderness is for wildlife. In ‘Wounds’, he finds an injured bird –

. . . picked it up, cupped
as if holding a fledgling angel
this lost jigsaw piece of sky
this little god of hurt
with scar tissue dreams
turning wounds into stories

it lifted a wing, pleading
I pulled out a thorn
jabbed it into my heart

The language of these poems is versatile and sonorous. A storm ‘sabers rain as a weapon’; and the weather hits ‘with wind-slap-spite’; a doe ‘steps out, like a bather caught unaware sees me and dresses fast in the robe of its caution’; an owl makes ‘a vortex of itself spiral tightened down by the pull of the volewise grass’. He captures jackdaws with a single brush stroke:

yesterday, a tight flock,
a thunder cloud’s worth
of omens . . .

Birds Knit My Ribs Together has been praised by TV naturalist, Chris Packham, who shares Barnett’s ability for total emersion in a subject – ‘the poems reside in nature but Phil resides within them and their flesh is readable. It’s like he’s tattooed them on his chest.’

At his best, Barnett seduces us with illuminating imagery and offers moments where we can step out of our static selves and fly. In ‘We Give What We Can’, he incants:

. . . cross my palm with robin
just one pin, just one needle
tiny claw-prickle human hand
blood-orange-bib bird
across my heart line
along my love line

this pumpkin-sky morning
sunrise has trusted me
with a fragment of itself

we give what gifts we can
me, a crumb of cheese
the robin, one drop of life’s spittle . . .

When poets write from the core of their beings, good things arise. Anyone fascinated by wild life and the wonderment it can inspire would do well to add this collection to their bookshelves.

Birds Knit My Ribs Together is available at £9.99 +p&p from Arachne Press. Also available as an e-book.

Claire Booker lives in Brighton. Her latest collection is A Pocketful of Chalk (Arachne Press 2022). She won the Poetry Society’s 2023 Stanza Competition and was long-listed this year in The National Poetry Competition. You can find out more at www.bookerplays.co.uk.