Poetry by Isobel Dixon, from A Whistling of Birds

The JRB presents an excerpt from A Whistling of Birds by Isobel Dixon.

A Whistling of Birds
Isobel Dixon
Human & Rousseau, 2023



How well they interweave:
leaf, scale, sinuous flesh,
dark tropical loop and mesh
against the thunder blue.

A whisper of Rousseau’s
lush jungle brush
in the heat-heavy hour
before the tiger-storm.

But it’s the snakes that come.
Where the crane-lilies wait
for the sunbirds’ feet,
knobkierie heads skim

deep-shadowed stem,
the ranks of blossom
assegais. A plump snake
dives into a reef of spathes—

a sharp-beaked host,
these birds of paradise.
Below, the pale grey
serpent-ghost tongue-flicks

the undergrowth. Phalanx
of Strelitzias, a floral
arsenal, Garden Ophidian.
Mountain stronghold, no

way in. Except the palette’s
jade and gold, red earth,
brown and black. The artist,
cast out, painting back.


For Albert Adams, 1929—2006


Everywhere, Apricots 

The sparrows of West San Francisco Street
play exuberant games of tag. The bees
are all about the purple sage. An apricot falls
as I reach the spreading map of shade,
its splotchy fruit topography. Blue doors,
sunflowers, moonflower trumpetings,
hollyhocks. And everywhere, apricots.

I arrive to high, clear air, rolling cloudcast
and a glut of golden apricots—
July-fall, sweetening the street. Thinking—
hoiking my suitcase over trampled apricots—
how a lone-tree orchard makes a home,
how fragrance lifts the traipsing heart,
that transfused dart of quickened memory.

Gardens distant, scented, summery,
and summoned here. The familiar far,
the faraway nearby, in fallen fruit.
Fruit fallen profligate on pavement, street
and wall—whole clefted globes pecked down
to sun-baked oval stone next time I pass.
A dizzy surge of jetlag, altitude, and apricots.

On Canyon Road a gallerist holds out
a decorated bowl, filled from the heavy
backyard tree: sweet, artless, artful apricots.
Still Life on Garden Table by the Piñon Pine,
with Apricots.
Fruitfall fortifies the thirsty
noonday wanderers—on, Alameda-wards—
and even on the riverbank, wild apricot.

My train companion writes to say
she’s learned that Georgia too loved apricots.
The museum has the recipes, cards
in her peerless hand: muffins and bread, fruits
from her tree, the apricots of Abiquiú.
I hope somewhere there is an Apricot and Glass,
a sharp, bright scene to match that glowing peach—

and yes, Cézanne-like apple family, a fig and plums,
those double pears—but what about the apricots?
Perhaps that early, nameless bowl of fruit
holds some: ubiquitous, unflashy, reassuring
apricots. The bounty of the everyday, and yet
the hint of alchemy is right there on the tongue—
my appelkooskonfyt, your heaped-up chabacanos,

albarcoque, el albaricoque, Ruskin’s velvet gold.
Rub your thumb across its shape before you split
the apricot. Apricot adobe, lavender, lightning
on the hills, all the transcendent light.
Never-seen-before scores of clustered apricots,
like honeyed grapes, bunched high above
the street mosaics of apricot. A land lit up

with apricot. Scent telegraph from tree
to tree and root to root, between the shadow
and the flame. Whose are these apricots?
City, pueblo, sidewalk, via dolorosa,
avenue, the hidden canyon apricot.
The hotel mirror bulbs blink on, a branch
of dropping fruits like sun-struck dew.

The inner traveller shrinks. No certain flights
from stings and fevers, all the weight
of apricots. We prune and hack, plant well,
give up, pollute our stewardship.
I wake and dream and, fitful, wake again,
then rise to run and find ahead
my least-bruised fallen morning apricot.


Santa Fe and Abiquiú, New Mexico


  • Isobel Dixon was born in Mthatha and grew up in Graaff-Reinet in the Great Karoo. Her debut collection, Weather Eye, was published by Gus Ferguson in the Carapace Poets series and won the Olive Schreiner Prize. Her fifth collection, A Whistling of Birds (with illustrations by Douglas Robertson), was published in June 2023 by Nine Arches Press in the UK and in September 2023 by Human & Rousseau in South Africa. A Whistling of Birds pays close and striking attention to our threatened natural world, with echoes and glimpses from other writers and artists, including DH Lawrence, Elizabeth Bishop, Albert Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe. Her previous full collections (all now published by Nine Arches in the UK) are A Fold in the Map (Jacana), The Tempest Prognosticator (Umuzi) and Bearings (Modjaji). She has work included in The New Century of South African Poetry (3rd edition) and forthcoming in The Anthology of Contemporary African Poetry (African Poetry Book Fund/University of Nebraska Press, 2024). Her poems have appeared in journals and anthologies around the world, recorded for the UK’s Poetry Archive and translated into several languages. 


Publisher information

‘I can almost not breathe for being in the presence of these poems.’—Gabeba Baderoon

Lyrical, vigorous, invent Lyrical, vigorous, inventive, Isobel Dixon’s fifth poetry collection, A Whistling of Birds, gestures towards DH Lawrence’s iconic Birds, Beasts and Flowers, but in a voice distinctly the poet’s own.

Dixon’s gaze takes in Syrian roses, an abundance of apricots in Santa Fe, the memory of a dancing friend; bats, bees, tortoises, snakes, the generous body of a whale.

Threaded throughout is the beautiful complexity and vulnerability of the planet, and the joy and difficulty of making art, as each poem becomes its own vivid testament to the natural world, and our often troubled and troubling place in it.

Author photo: Jo Kearney/Composite: The JRB

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