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The Butterfly House by Kathryn Bevis

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Following her much-celebrated pamphlet, Flamingo, Kathryn Bevis’s debut, The Butterfly House, tells the story of a life before and after a late-stage cancer diagnosis. These poems examine both life and death, encompassing experiences, terrible and sublime, as in her Forward Prize-shortlisted poem, ‘My body tells me she’s filing for divorce’. The collection, divided into two sections, ‘After’ and ‘Before’, contrasts the ghost-train of diagnosis, its spooks and cobwebs waiting at every turn, with all that came prior. Above all, these poems attest to the enduring power of a life lived in gratitude for love.  

In ‘After’, poems like ‘Anniversary’ respond to the painful truth of late-stage illness, but Bevis writes with luminance about the reality of living with it, conjuring it through startling and surreal imagery. Cancer is playfully compared to co-existing with a ring-tailed lemur, and stages of loss and acceptance in ‘Translations of Grief’ transform the terminal patient into a shoal of sardines, a zebra, a lyrebird, a blue whale, and a jellyfish. Many poems home in with absolute clarity on what is most important: love, loved ones, and moments of beauty that we experience every day.  

In the section ‘Before’, poems about family, culture and growing up are made bittersweet by the knowledge of what’s to come. The poet’s grandmother is knitted back into being, and the felicities and trials of girlhood are figured movingly in poems like ‘How to Choose a Boy’. The complexities of womanhood are explored through cultural icons like Wonder Woman, Gloria Gaynor, or Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. These are poems that celebrate love and tenderness, which offer freedom and potential, as in ‘Anagrams of Happiness’, where “now is who we might become”.  

The title poem is haunted by the butterflies that once appeared to mark the death of a loved one, and now flutter before the narrator: ‘Since my diagnosis, / I see them every time I close my eyes.’ The Butterfly House faces the poignant reality of our allotted time, our span as fleeting as butterflies – ‘Their flaming wings. Their too short lives.’ Through remarkable and stunning metaphors, Bevis beautifully holds together the fact of mortality with the joy of being alive. 

 

Published 24th March by Seren

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