Throughout 2021, as Covid and climate change battled for supremacy in the hearts and minds of the world, California-based poet Heather Bourbeau and Sydney-based Irish poet Anne Casey engaged in a poetry conversation back and forth across the globe, alternating each week, to create 52 poems over 52 weeks. With poetry anchored in their gardens, they buoyed each other through lockdowns and exile from family, through devastating floods, fires, wild winds, and superstorms. Some Days the Bird, a collection of award-winning poems, is the result of their weekly communiqués from different hemispheres (and opposing seasons) in verse.
ANNE CASEY: I don’t regard myself as a particularly anxious person, but if you were to ask me what my greatest stressor is, I’d probably tell you “uncertainty”. And what is most important to me? My family, my tribe. Those ingredients combined to make the madcap circus that was 2020 my worst nightmare (or so I thought)—sealed behind Australia’s airtight borders half the earth from vulnerable family and friends, and with new worries for my children.
Having lost loved ones at a distance and weathered the tumult of one of history’s most unpredictable years, by December 2020, I really did think things couldn’t get much worse. As I contemplated a world still largely in pandemic lockdown with blistering hospital numbers, the UK’s approval of the Pfizer vaccine looked like the start of the end of the world’s darkest dream. And though the removal trucks had not yet applied the air brakes outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, we rested assured that after all the lunacy of the pandemic misinformation, we would soon see the back of Agent Orange. I was not to know that a new strain was brewing as insidiously as democracy deniers, that our Prime Minister would fumble the vital vaccine roll-out, that my 18-month wait to see my tribe in Ireland was far from over. Or what a lifeline poetry would be during the second pandemic year and how my tribe, my family, would expand by a single very important person.
HEATHER BOURBEAU: Anne and I met at the end of February 2020. We were the featured readers at Live Poets at Don Bank in Sydney, Australia. The world was waking up to COVID, and borders would close a few days after I returned to the United States, but at that moment I was visiting my Australian family and friends and had booked this reading as a way to engage in the local literary scene and share some of my work. As Anne read her poetry and talked about her research and interests, I felt like I had dumb lucked into meeting one of my people.
We stayed in touch through social media and in December 2020, I reached out to Anne, proposing we engage in a poetry conversation riffing off of Lace & Pyrite: Letters from Two Gardens by Ross Gay and Aimee Nezhukumatathil. When I picked it up at AWP 2016 (the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference held each year in the U.S.), I fell in love with the dozen poems they published as part of their exchange.
As someone who is deeply curious about the natural world around me, I wanted to engage in my own conversation with another writer, anchored in the experience of our respective gardens. I thought Anne would be the perfect partner for this, not only because of the fascination of witnessing opposite seasonal changes and dramatically different flora and fauna, but also because Anne’s writing captures the small and sublime amid a backdrop of history and events. We had no way of knowing what 2021 held for us in our respective countries, in our families, or in our friendship.
ANNE CASEY: When I first heard Heather read her poetry in Sydney, I had what I now realise was a mutual gotcha moment. Her tender sensibility swam just beneath the surface of language that managed to be simultaneously lyrical and crisp. Her attitudes to life, love, family felt familiar and were peppered with a wry humour I found irresistible. So, when Heather approached me about a poetry collaboration just before Christmas of that annus horribilis we were all racing to adios, how could I decline? I swept aside the teetering pile of work and doctoral deadlines, shut the door on the clamouring domestic to-do list and neatly packaged up the most pressing obstacle in a small envelope sealed with sticky-tape and shoved into a bottom drawer.
This was a small secret I have kept from Heather throughout the year we wrote together, through 52 poems composed across the weeks, handwritten and dispatched into the beleaguered international postal system (and also via email for speed of response), a little omission she is only now discovering as she reads this… A tiny triviality really… that I am not (never have been) a gardener, that I know nothing about gardens or gardening per se. Surely not an obstacle in the writing of a book centred around gardens, I hypothesised as the carrot of conversing in verse with Heather dangled so tantalisingly. I resolved that my love of nature could surely infill this minor furrow.
HEATHER BOURBEAU: Oh, my goodness, that is hilarious! While I am not the best gardener, I do appreciate getting my hands dirty and watching the bees and hummingbirds flock to newly sprouting lavender or sage. After our first meeting, we must have talked about the respite that the nature around our homes provided us, and that is what struck me, rather than any actual gardening. Oh, I wish you could see me laughing and shaking my head.
Throughout the year, because of the attentiveness this project asked for, I learned much more about what was growing around me and what creatures shared this space with me. This deepening understanding of my very immediate surroundings helped anchor me in gratitude and in the present moment more consistently than my fitful meditation practices. This anchoring helped me weather the COVID-related lockdowns, losses of family and friends, fires, the pain and trauma behind the Black Lives Matter and other protests, and an insurrection. For instance, I wrote the first poem, “The letting”, just before the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol and the impact of that day resonates in poems that follow, but I hope they also show the persistent beauty of lifecycles and connections between and beyond humans.
“The letting” begins: “People have become numbers, corridors are morgues/ and we are mocked by the tenacious need of green to grow—/jade blossoms repel rain, my lemon tree’s grotesque fecundity”.
The other gift of this project was the real friendship that Anne and I developed through the practice of writing our letters, which included our poems, but also contained news of our own lives. I came to know her family and she mine in a way that was profound. Because of these missives across the Pacific, I could imagine her father’s garden in Ireland and the pain of her separation from him during Australia’s lengthy lockdown, and she could empathize with my care and concerns for my own beloved father, whom we lost earlier this year. For example, in “Kin,” I write of cleaning my father’s house, “My yellow gloves paused, my dad’s breath periodically fluttering in a half snore” and “the small silver threads tethering us— empathy and gratitude.”
I did not realize how important those weekly letters had become until 2022 came and we were no longer writing to each other quite as frequently.
ANNE CASEY: When I read Heather’s first poem, “The letting”, it took my breath away – a mixture of wonder at her extraordinary writing and trepidation that I would never be able to keep pace! My head was full of daily COVID numbers and the push-pull of separation from family in Ireland, particularly my own Dad who was isolating alone in west Clare and my husband’s Mum – recently widowed and in declining health, who we would lose midway through 2021. I had become a headline spectator – not doom-scrolling, but plumbing for hope of news portending when our borders might open.
Those front-page banners started to find their way into my poems, interlaced with glimmers of solace gleaned from our garden which borders native bushland, with soaring trees blurring the border between. My poem entitled “Our Prime Minister says the vaccine is not a silver bullet” (which went on to win the American Writers Review 2021 prize) begins: “Primordial monstera fronds list in the blistering shade, a solitary kookaburra silent between the flagging liquidambar branches”, crosses all the closed borders to find “snow coating the slopes outside my father’s far-off window, dusting his muddled head” and closes with “my heart rising to meet the updraughts, torn between émigré anguish and shimmering hope”.
As we tided through one hundred days of lockdown in Sydney – our world had “shrunk to the brink of the sleeping garden where monstera fronds slump like fallen combatants, a fine white mist disappearing the universe beyond our fence” – this poetry conversation with Heather became a lifeline. I waited each alternate week for the gift of her poem via email, wondered how I would ever respond and relived each gem again as it arrived, inscribed in her neat handwriting, by mail weeks (sometimes months!) later.
I became captivated by this practice of looking out, looking up, to see what changes were happening in the plant world, what birds and small animals had visited (occasionally something larger like a giant python that fell from the sky to startle our family dog!). In between bushfire recovery and flood emergencies driven by climate change (“a wedding couple watch with countless millions as their connubial home drifts slowly down the swollen river”), COVID isolation and longing for news of the doe that frequented Heather’s garden, I became bewitched by “the hum of wildness overcoming concrete” – a “wattle bird bronco-riding a long, bobbing stem”, “a dragon-fly’s rise over the fence”, “a whipbird missing in small explosions of gold.”
As 100,000 women took to the streets in Australia to protest the unrelenting rise of domestic violence and our Prime Minister declared it a triumph they “weren’t met with bullets”, never-a-gardener, I found myself longing “to sink my wind-parched hands wrist-deep into moist black loam.” I was hooked “looking out at these trees, feet suspended in pulsing layers of decaying moments, a million green wings flapping in the buzzing air, their outstretched limbs holding up this blazing universe”. Holding me up with them. And all the while, the invisible thread of friendship found in poetry was unspooling across the troubled globe, binding me closer and closer with Heather.
HEATHER BOURBEAU: It’s amazing how bearing witness and hearing of Anne’s witness to the smallest creatures in our yards (such as the “earwigs under the piles” and the subtle and not-so-subtle seasonal changes) helped with climate-related, pandemic-related, and socio-political events. For instance, my poem “Perigee” was written in response to the conviction of former police officer Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd. “The Farmer’s Almanac says now is the time to kill weeds, cut timber – thin, prune, plant. The rains have come just in time to try and wash us clean.”
Each fortnight, I breathlessly awaited Anne’s poem and letter, sharing her perspectives of the big and the banal happening half a world away. The protests in Canberra, the returns to school, and the flora and fauna less known to me—tawny frogmouths, liquidambar, and the “banksia’s withered clutches”. When one of my handwritten letters was sent back to me in November because of mistaken COVID protocols, it was like a small, precious tether was momentarily broken.
I know that 2021 would have been much harder to bear without this exchange—a statement I would not have expected back when we agreed to this.
ANNE CASEY: Slowing to observe the first delicate shootings of “wind-seeded crocus” or a scarlet-cheeked wattlebird probing a flower’s “dark crimson heart” for the “plump rapture” of a seed, this collaboration has nurtured a gentle acceptance that “some days you’re the seed, some days the bird.” In 1916, Robert Frost wrote in a letter to Louis Untermeyer that a poem “begins as a lump in the throat… a homesickness, a love sickness.” Through all the turmoil backdropping its writing, this poetry conversation, now a book, with Heather has been a tonic, a homecoming, a blossoming into a close and valued friendship. When there were so many reasons to fold inward, flag to darkness, I am deeply grateful to Heather for the gift of this connection, and all those pauses where I found small radiances – like our neighbours’ peace lilies “ivory cones probing the dank air, white wings uplifted, waiting faithfully for the return of light.”
Some Days the Bird is published by Beltway Editions in Washington, US.