Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the Free Press
Steve Whitaker
Literary Editor
1:00 AM 11th March 2024

Poem Of The Week: An Experiment On A Bird In The Air Pump By Ali Lewis

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

Is a recreation,
revised again by Wright,

with the lark replaced
by a grey cockatiel,

witnesses repainted
with faces of patrons,

and the philosopher
borrowed from a study by Frye,

so the dim observers,
who weren’t there, can’t have seen

it open one moonlit wing
as the pressure fell

as if the last thing it felt
was it felt like flying.

Ali Lewis’ fine poem of absence and illusion takes as its theme a painting by Joseph Wright, which was committed to oils during the Age of Reason, and stands, in its artifice, as an unconscious parody of the seeking of scientific truth, whose rapt exponents make up the picture’s subjects.

Lewis’ poem peels away layers of definition, couplet by couplet, to reveal a palimpsest of a bird's organic energy, a pale and pathetic shadow of biological instinct whose natural vigour is now measured in the principles of physics; the exigencies of science demand no less than an actuated pastiche, as the ‘dim observers’, who were not actually present at the experiment, look on.

That Wright changed the bird and lifted the image of the philosopher from another portrait adds a further layer of prolixity to Lewis’ study, whose own sense of historical place and purpose recedes into tantalising shadow as the poem unfolds.

And yet real beauty obtains in this intelligent and refreshingly uncertain inquiry: the opening of a single ‘moonlit wing’ and the knee-jerk impression of flight, liberate impulses that once obtained, conferring pathos on a poem of smoke and mirrors.

‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’ is taken from Absence, published by Cheerio Publishing (2024)

More information here.

For Joseph Wright's painting, click here.