Birds of Wisconsin by B.J. Best, New Rivers Press, 2010. $13.95
Reviewed by Amanda Brzenk
B.J. Best sets out to explore aspects of human conscience through the use of birds as symbols and stand-ins in his second collection of poems, Birds of Wisconsin. The map of bird culture as told through the eyes of the Canada goose and the barn swallow becomes as complex as the lives of people. It also becomes grounded in real Wisconsin history as the life of Owen Gromme, a legend with the Milwaukee Public Museum and bird activism, roots itself within individual poems and provides the collection’s foundational quote, “I have never painted a bird yet that satisfied me.” Also evident in the poems is Best’s familiarity with the state of Wisconsin, which stems from his life-long (except for a stint at college and grad school) residence there. Best carries his readers through a flock of emotions with his quiet articulation of distress and his tender wit that come together in a seamless balance between “Instructions on Flying” and “Instructions on Landing,” the first and last of the book’s three sections.
The second section of Birds of Wisconsin is the one that most vividly grasps the soul of Best’s subject: “The Prayers of Birds.” Best eloquently conveys the minds of the Common Pigeon:
Forgive me, I have defiled yet another city statue.
I have eaten old popcorn on the sidewalk.
I have edged near old men and cooed like a lover.
I have forgotten what it is to be a bird.
and the Red-Tailed Hawk:
please sever my foot at the ankle.
Have you ever heard
a rabbit scream?
These are just two examples of many where Best depicts birds as if they were humans. One of the most fascinating strands that Best pulls through his entire collection is a psychological unity between birds and people. This poem exemplifies it well because of the horror that the bird feels for what he does, even though it is in his nature to do it. It draws a connection between the reader and each bird whose eyes Best allows the reader to see, though subtly.
Yet another example of the smooth shift of sentiment transpires in “The Prayer of the Woodpecker”:
The humor that sneaks in and out of this collection stands tall here. When asked about the collection, I do not hesitate to lead even the poetry inept to this page to sum up some of Birds’s best qualities.
The first and third sections of the book, “Instructions on Flying” and “Instructions on Landing,” have a symmetry. Both contain poems in the voice of Owen Gromme. Here Gromme is revealed as the historical muse for Best’s bird portraits. The first and last poems of the book, “Owen gromme as a child watching Canada geese staging” and “owen gromme lies down and accepts the finality of it all” respectively give Best’s portrayal of the beginning and ending of Gromme’s commitment to birds. Immediately following the former and preceding the latter are section-titled poems that capture the fear and faith involved in take off:
You are ideally standing on the edge of a picnic table. Now: think of light things: lemonade, cigarette smoke, a nursery rhyme, ling. High school and bowling balls, we have tragically discovered, do not work well.
As well as attempting to land:
Any fool knows it’s not easy. But it’s done all the time, and requires only the flimsiest of faiths. Begin the descent, contemplating the exact sensation of a broken thighbone, a tooth wrenched from its socket, skin flaying in shards as you skid across asphalt.
Best configures the voice of Gromme to expertly understand birds with growing melancholy that tracks the voices of the birds as they become more troubled throughout the collection.
The poems’ composition is another feature to be admired. The forms are as diverse as the species of birds found within these pages. The poems range from one-liners to three-pagers, and the transition is always graceful. Best is masterful with a wide range of poetic forms both in length and in structure, as seen from both the well-dressed “sestina of the killdeer” and the free-verse experimentation that can be seen with “junco:”
swept across the slate-colored morning
the husk of a sunflower seed
in the snow.
The range of poetic style that Best skillfully controls makes the book a page-turner. It is exciting to read a great prose poem and wonder what fresh perspective turning the page will uncover. His experimentation with capitalizing letters is likewise thought provoking. The consistent lowercase letters in this poem turn the poem into almost a whisper, and evoke a silent pastoral scene slated by a sad brokenness presented with the chopped lines. The fragmentation of each line is subtle enough not to overwhelm the silent images in the poem, but it is perceptible enough to highlight the lack that the junco sense. Another expertly employed element shown here is sound. The command of the “s” sound above compliments the quiet and fragmented structure of “junco” by turning the words into soft music.
Best’s masterful harmony preserves the reader’s feelings through each poem before causing them to fluctuate in the next.
Amanda Brzenk is a Creative Writing major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was an intern for Verse Wisconsin in the winter and spring of 2011.