Languages of Flight, Flesh and Feather

By Sarah Busse

Why is it poets are so attracted to avian life forms? Is it the grace of their flight? Their wordless songs? Is it simply a matter of proximity? Or is it because, as my daughter would have it, they are the dinosaurs among us? Well, whatever the attraction, as a bird poet myself, I’m always interested to read how other writers approach the subject. The poems in the five books considered here go far beyond simply describing the chickadee at a feeder. Thinking about how each of these very different and distinct poets uses the images, tropes and ideas around bird gave me a way to consider the art and scope of each, from technical skill and approach, to questions of subject, perspective, rhetoric and purpose.

B.J. Best is a poet who is growing with each book and chap that he publishes. In Birds of Wisconsin, Best writes in the voice of Owen Gromme, a local Wisconsin native and a renowned bird artist of our state. This stretch into the voice of an older man, perhaps, as well as his own inevitable accumulation of life experience, has helped Best grow and deepen into a more thoughtful, and thought-provoking, poet.

As in his earlier collections, the poems here form a tightly thematic group. Best isn’t one to allow slackness, or even elbow room, as his previous books prove: sonnets about states, poems about smoking, poems fascinated with a particular lake and its geography… this is a poet who likes to work deeply with the restrictions of a given theme, even (especially) a narrow one. There is not a single poem in Birds that is not centered on observing birds, or written in the voice of birds, or in the voice of Owen Gromme the bird artist. At the very furthest stretch, there are poems imagining flight. Like his earlier chapbook, Mead Lake, This, the poems are grouped symmetrically in three sections: the first and last titled “Instructions on Flying” and “Instructions on Landing,” respectively, and the middle section a collection of “The Prayers of Birds.” Where the greater latitude comes is in his use of a wide variety of forms. While Best has proven he can write a book made up entirely of sonnets, in this collection he utilizes free verse and prose poetry, as well as two and three-line stanza patterns, and a couple of unrhymed sonnets. The variation in form is a welcome contrast to the singularity of theme.

If we can imagine what it might be to be avian, perhaps we can learn what it is to be human. Best wants to know birds, inside and out. Audubon, as well as Gromme, is a father to this book. From close observation, to imagined dissections, to writing prayers for them (words for their songs?), he moves by multiple means further in to the experience of what must/might it be to be a bird, and then, shifting tone or focus, withdraws again. And there’s a place for humor, too, as in “Instructions on Flying”:

If for each dream, you do not dream about birds, forget it.

Do not attempt to use the following: a balloon, a kite, anything bungee-oriented, a cape, hallucinogens of any sort, a beanie with a propeller on top.

Do however, wear scaly things…

When Best writes of birds themselves, it’s with mixed results. The central section, “Prayers of Birds,” is full of gems as he writes what it might be to be the Scarlet Tanager (“I will fly to the edge of sunset. / Should I be singed with the color of sin, so be it. / O Lord, help me be pure, but not yet.”) or Woodpecker (“O, if / we could / find something / else to / do with / our heads, / that would / be nice.”). Somehow these improbable, fantastic poems work, combining humor and sympathy, and filling out our observation-based experience of our feathered neighbors. However, in the two surrounding sections, his poems of birds sometimes manage their figures quite differently, and not always so successfully. For instance, I’m not sure I see a chickadee here:

by the bottom of your third nest of moss,
you are demanding great things,
your feathers frightening the air:

you want the stars to stand there
like scarecrows, the proletariat of grasses
to weave into wreaths…

Of course, Best’s chickadee doesn’t have to be the same as mine. And it isn’t necessary to depict a chickadee realistically for the poem’s success. It could be argued that Best’s ability to use birds to different purposes in different poems is a strength of the book. In order to believe this, we must be sure he knows exactly what he’s doing. In a few places, (as in “Chickadee,” above) I feel my faith slip a little.

But only a little. The most intimate and successful moments in this successful book may come in some of the poems in the voice of Gromme. Allowing himself to imagine this bird artist (how much less foreign is it to imagine oneself another person, than imagining oneself a bird?), Best writes some lovely poems. Here’s “owen gromme served as world war one stretcher-bearer” in its entirety:

i don’t like to talk about it
much. but i remember one soldier,

an artillery man, who was from
wisconsin and a fellow hunter.

he was saying:
we shoot down planes just like ducks.

There’s an ambivalence given voice here. Clearly the war would, and did, mark a person. But the last line refracts into a question: do these Wisconsin hunters, then, shoot down ducks just like war planes? One doesn’t have to adopt an anti-hunting stance to pause a moment and consider.

A similar ambivalence is found in the third section of “owen gromme is commissioned by marshall and isley bank”

when i plan compositions,
i am careful to leave
the birds some way out

of the picture.

In this moment, do we catch a glimpse of a bird artist who questions his own vocation? Does he want to capture birds on the wall of a bank building? Can he?

Occasionally in these poems, I feel that Best forgets to leave a way out for his readers. His poems, in a few instances, display a weakness (common among bird poems and I suspect the main reason some readers dislike the genre) for the transcendent ending, which can edge into self-indulgence. Be wary of poems that raise their gaze to the sky as they come to close….However, it is true I am especially sensitized to this issue, being overly fond of transcendent endings myself. This is a very fine book. Best’s work is accessible even to readers who usually love birds more than poems.

Rebecca Dunham’s newest book, The Flight Cage, is just out from Tupelo. Where Best used the figure of Owen Gromme, Dunham writes into, out of, and around the figure of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women among other things, and mother to Mary Shelly, famously the author of Frankenstein. Do you get the idea we’re in heady territory here? Wollstonecraft was quite a remarkable figure. Dunham uses direct quotes from her, so that many of the poems are “collaged,” to quote Tupelo’s promotional material. If you’re a footnote junkie like me, you’ll read through the copious endnotes and discover Dunham is collaging more than just Wollstonecraft’s voice: Sarah Good and Ann Putnam of the Salem witch trials, Dorothy Wordsworth, Elsie Kachel Stevens (the wife of poet Wallace), Emily Dickinson, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman also appear, and this is not an exhaustive list.

Dunham uses these voices, and others, interweaving them with her own, to try to apprehend what it is to be female. This is very much a book about women’s experiences: pregnancy, birth, child loss and motherhood, yes. But also accusations of witchcraft (interestingly voicing both accuser and accused), flight from abusive husbands, experience of illness, experience of being labeled ill, experience of modeling for the sculptor’s gaze, of journaling for another (male) poet’s later use… In other words, Dunham is writing here to explore the experience of being female in our bodies and in our minds, as well as in our culture. What are the boundaries, the definitions, the expectations, through the centuries? As the cover photo of a crinoline cage for hoopskirts prompts us, we ask, What cages us? What hems us in? Given the focus of these poems, I find the terms weaving and tapestry as appropriate as collage for what Dunham is doing.

Love comes in at the eye, Yeats said. Poetry may come in at many a portal, but these poems come in through the very top of a discerning and engaged brain. Here’s a sample from the first poem in a central poem cycle that takes up the middle section of the book, “A Short Residence.” Each poem is fifteen lines and linked together into a re-envisioned, expanded, crown of sonnets. Dunham writes in a style that may be best described as “semi-formal,” as Marilyn Taylor has defined the term. Dunham is clearly schooled in traditional forms and comfortable with them, yet here she chooses to use them and redefine or reinvent them to her own purposes.  Each of these fifteen-line sonnets is dual-voiced, and threads in passages from a corresponding letter of Wollstonecraft’s in italics, written during her stay in Scandanavia:

Brick and butter leaves thread
the breeze that banners our side porch,
picking up speed. Chimes lift
their hollow throats in sonorous aria.
Confinement is so unpleasant

the wind lashes and snaps the land’s
back, lungs emptied across plains
shorn or riotous green alike…

Clearly, Dunham feels at home in language, loves the slap and play of syllables as they bustle up against each other. These poems are intellectual and sensual pleasures at the same time. One registers a thrill at each italicized line, hearing the ghost of another’s voice, lifted into the present moment. This crown, and the book as a whole, are in dialogue with Wollstonecraft and her ideas about the position of women and the very definition of what it is to be female. The page is a palimpsest, one voice faintly heard underneath and through another’s. Instead of erasures, which work by subtraction, these tapestry-like poems add voices in, to enrich and illuminate the text, almost like a gold thread, woven through.  

But Dunham, I think, is not so much interested in definition as she is in something more difficult to identify or express directly. Here is the beginning of the book’s title poem, “The Flight Cage,” dedicated to, and written about, the effort of Frank Baker to design a “Flight Cage” aviary for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition:

His question was not the same one
Audubon once faced, no longer a matter
of arresting each avian species’ distinct
plumage and light, but rather how
to frame a living piece of art, the heart’s
allegro tremble as it pumps its wings,
how to display the beauty that is flight…

Questions arise, for clearly birds, while perhaps beautiful, are more and less than works of art. (As are women.) Baker sought to create a built space that would allow birds to fly, and would allow us to observe them in flight. But is flight within even the largest of cages really flight? Here we are back to the dilemma faced by Owen Gromme: What can be captured? What does “capture” mean? Dunham asks:

What did he capture in the end, then:
the clumsy pink miracle by which even
a flamingo summons its body into air?
The human soul’s answering upward leap?
Or the myriad ways that mankind’s
ingenuity manages to find the ineffable
to earth?

She realizes

The structure’s steel trusses,
flying buttresses, arch up like a red-winged
blackbird in motion, muscles pulsing,
to form a cathedral more reminiscent
of flight than any of its inhabitants.

This could be something of an ars poetica, as Dunham’s poems also form deliberate structures. And where are the birds in all of this? Although birds occasionally make an appearance in these pages, Dunham is more interested in the idea of bird, and the related tropes of cage and flight, to make her points. Or rather, to ask her questions. Her poems, muscled and graceful, catch through their architectures the feel of flight through associational leap, even as she is ruminating upon people who were very much caught in the restrictions of their (and our) eras, psychologies and physiologies. 

I was a bird. A bird in a play and my first line was “bird.”

In the beginning was the word. “Bird.” A fascinating comparison to Dunham’s book, Julie Carr’s Sarah—Of Fragments and Lines is also a book centered on female experience. This time, quite specific: the concurrent (or nearly so) failing and falling away of a mother, with the adult daughter’s own experience of conception, pregnancy, and birth. Rather than stitching together her own with voices from history, as Dunham does, Carr dives deeply into one speaker, one voice. Total immersion.  

While Dunham’s poetry appeals to the eternal grad student in me, I expected not to like Carr’s book very much. After all, her title (fragments? lines?) cues us to expect a poetry that may use words for sound, stripped of referential meaning. A poetry of purposeful non-sense. Carr does write in a fragmented style which mimics both the progression of dementia and the radical displacement that can take place with pregnancy and birth. As someone who often argues that we as poets should not mimic chaos but work to create something out of it, I thought the odds were good I wouldn’t be able to say much about Sarah. But I was unprepared for Carr’s music. Here’s “Conception Abstracts,” the whole thing:

Heat teams from the meat of the form.

Tame heat if tame form, if maimed form then fierce.
Seems eaten, this mate, this timed tenant.

Tenured member of my own passive nature, I tested the
time of the task. Desperate for some apt rapture, tapped
the lap of the master. Faster. Water and laughter, the
last splutter of summer, later, the hot slap of not
sleeping. Walled by fault, the taut self slipped. And to
what heights after?

Now that’s fun. It pulls us in through play. But there’s a lot more going on. There’s a narrative in there, too, as the title clues us in. The hint of a story provides the friction, but at first we’re along for the ride, which incorporates extreme alliteration, assonance, rhyme, and, to my ear, a repeated echo of triple meter. And here’s an example of another, quite different poem, from the start of “Fear Fragments”:

rodent in the fir tree

in the

alphabet and telephone: fur

Rodent—from gnaw

and scratch she can’t—now

speak can’t, now, see—

Again, I find myself drawn in by the sounds and (here halting) rhythm of the poem, by its music, which conveys its meaning. If you read this book straight through, as I found myself doing, there is a vortex-like, physical effect to Carr’s language, which draws a reader in to another’s reality, simultaneously (through the reference to the archetypal matriarch, the Hebrew Sarah) moving us into a time-out-of-time. Almost completely the opposite of Dunham’s approach, by the end, I can’t say I felt as though I had experienced what it would be like to have a mother succumb to dementia, nor the pregnancy and birth of a child. I had experienced text as displacement. The poem, in Carr’s hands, becomes the abstracted form of what it refers to (very much the same as the Flight Cage became an abstracted form of flight).

We see this, too, in the incorporation and embrace of process within the book. Throughout the table of contents, poems are titled as “fragments” or “abstracts,” the one a torn, salvaged piece of a whole, the other a brief synopsis, a gloss. There are “Lines for what is Broken,” and “Broken Abstracts,” and “Lines for Revision,” as though she planned to revise but was interrupted, and decided to include the fact of the interruption. And lastly, “Lines to Scatter,” as though we the reader, in the end, must help her in the final breaking and scattering of the text.

In Carr’s work, we experience not person as bird, but bird as a word, and bird as a person, dressed in feathers, leaping.

Dutifully theatrical, I learned to fly by leaping from the ledge, running in the grass…

It would be tempting to think that Carr isn’t interested in birds themselves at all. But it’s not quite so simple as that: “What’s winged / in the open of your pregnancy?” one poems asks. Another refers to a newborn as “little avian baby… tender dove, tremulous and bare.” And in a third poem, the mother is imagined as magpie and duck. So there are birds to be found in the pages, carrying various metaphorical baggages. However, the poems are the most birdlike in how the lines scatter across the pages. Their songs fragment, the ink almost branches into trees, into the pattern of flight and chirp and interruption. As in the poem “Bird Fragments,” these poems are “Aural being. Chirr…. Gathered as hole as/ pure sound then pure letter…” Here we arrive at the truth of it: these poems are language as bird. Carr writes, “I learned to fly by leaping from the ledge.” Poetically, she makes the same leaps on these pages.

The biggest surprise for me in this group was Sandy Stark’s Counting on Birds. I’m a little bit familiar with Stark’s poems; I’ve heard her read a time or two, and we’ve published a few of her poems in Verse Wisconsin. I was not prepared for Counting on Birds, however. Her voice is far and away the most straight-forward of this group. A bird-watcher and note taker in general, she writes about what she sees, what she observes, what she deduces from those observations. From as far away as Baghdad, and as close as Baraboo, the birds in these poems are exactly real, carefully observed, and relied upon.

The collection progresses, perhaps a little too predictably, from youth (a section titled “Plumage”), to the last section, “Crossings,” regarding aging and death. But within the sections there are intriguing surprises.  Here is the third poem of the book, in the “Plumage” section, in its entirety:

How the Pigeons Circled

When her telephone rang on Sept 11
the chickadees at her feeder didn’t answer;
they fluttered and landed,
black-capped heads turning sideways
to pick at the seeds they preferred.

Nor did they hear the sirens
she heard on television,
or see those images on the screen—
clouds of white and black smoke,
confetti of glass and steel—
and then the replay of the two planes,
one cutting through on flaming wings.

To keep watching, she had to focus
on how the pigeons circled
with all those other falling things.

This poem is a good example of how Stark works, I think. Note how she keeps us on the outside of the central events of this poem. We see chickadees in close detail. We hear sirens, see “those images”—Stark knows enough to know she doesn’t have to tell us which, or what, here. She knows—thank God—she doesn’t have to tell us her feelings. She gives us the planes, those awful man-made birds now improbably, unbelievably, on fire, wreaking havoc on history. And then, we cut away to the pigeons, a detail only a real birder would pick up on, would choose to focus on at this moment in time. She uses the pigeons to direct us away from (paradoxically, bringing into sharper focus) the awful fact of the “falling things.” Buildings, of course. People, we remember. Papers and debris. And also, what—innocence? Peacetime prosperity? Trust between fellow Americans? Tolerance? Yes, to all of it. And then, to remember that she places this poem in the first section, the section of youth and birth. This is a vision of the rough beast, slouching towards Bethlehem to be born. It is a powerful poem and a testament to the importance of placement within a book.

Although Stark writes in free verse, with an extremely plain diction, her poems are taut. Many of them, as above, display a rhyme towards the end which helps the poem to “close” in the reader’s ear. (Stark should watch out—if she’s not careful, this stylistic choice could turn into a mannerism and begin to cloy through too much repetition.) I don’t know if Stark reads Kay Ryan, but her poetry at times sounds a bit like a more rural, folksy version of Ryan. And, as in Ryan’s poems, there are glints of humor too, and echoes and recurrences. For instance, after giving us the pigeons above, she has a poem on “How Pigeons Think,” which begins: “With their toes. / What they can get a grip on, / they trust.” Yes, it’s funny. Yes, it’s in strange contrast to those earlier pigeons. And yes, it may just be a commentary on people, too. Or take “Learning to Fish,” a narrative poem about Stark’s mother which begins:

The men in my mother’s family fished;
the women served the food and drinks.
My mother got in the boat to change things,
so I grew up learning to fish…

Stark goes on to explore how this made her different from other girls, and then she finishes the poem trying to explain to her mother that her own life (choosing to be a writer, not marrying “the biggest fish in the sea”) turned out all right:

I know how to watch things;
I know how to find them;
I can cut my losses when I have to,
and I don’t think a good fish story
is the same thing as a lie.

This is a book to read with attention. The very plainness of her diction, the regularity of her stanzas, her refusal to hyperbolize or even get emotional, and the seemingly straight-forward, observing nature of the poems, belie the subtletly of what she’s doing. One of the best poems in the book is the penultimate, “Going To See the Cranes.” The poem is dedicated to, and addresses, Gretchen Schoff, and Stark begins by recounting their connection:

A few conversations, a question
after a class I sat in on,
a book pressed into your hand,
a note written in return:
this was our modest exchange.

Stark plans to go back, but fate intervenes and Schoff dies. “So, on the day others meet in your memory, / I go to see the cranes” of Baraboo’s International Crane Foundation.  But, to her disappointment, the cranes are not to be seen, as she drives onto the grounds. Instead, they are in their pens, where, as she approaches,

They emerge from dark doorways, giant puppets,
stilts for legs, long necks stretched out,
feathers dripping from their sides. I see
their bristled crowns and downy throats rise,
they spread their enormous wings, and then
I hear them sing. I only know they have stopped
when the hum of the last bee fills the air
and, turning to leave, I remind myself to breathe.

This is something rich and strange. These very real Baraboo, Wisconsin cranes have become also otherworldly. This is how the scales balance between Stark and Schoff, and this is how a poem does its work: by presenting not what we expect, but a stranger, more true reality: the weird singing of the cranes, in chorus, as some sort of inhuman (or extra-human) mass for the dead, with an audience of one. This is how Stark’s poetry works as well, by surprising us, by giving us, not birds as metaphor, or birds as stand in for humans, but birds as birds, consistently revealing their otherness, their physical fact among us, and hinting at the glinting intelligence of the one who observes them.

Chuck Rybak’s book Tongue and Groove flew serendipitously into my mailbox as I was preparing to write these reviews. I didn’t intend at first to include it here, but as I opened it up the first lines of the first poem (“Argus”) begin with a narrator’s confession:

Sometimes I’ll drop by the department store,
stare into an open lens and locate myself
on as many TV screens as possible.

The foreign angle, the dull back of my head,
I dumbly signal with bird-flapping arms
that it is indeed me, fifty times over…

We learn a lot from this beginning. First, Rybak is at home with the old Greeks, enough to see the hundred-eyed figure of Argus in our now-ubiquitous security cameras and satellites. The second poem is playfully titled “Homer-Erotic,” and throughout the book we get Atlas, Agamemon, Achilles, Aphrodite, all repurposed and brought into our own mundane realities, carrying tables, running around a track, or, in a nod to how the mundane can become suddenly explosive, accidentally starting wildfires. Published in 2007, Rybak’s world is our world. Post 9/11, the world of a distant, ongoing war that sends us “to the malls instead,” a wife is pregnant, a class full of students is bored. Rybak knows how to use the old myths to comment without commenting on the moments of our daily lives. He uses them exactly as myths are meant: coded, packed allusions which carry multiple layers of meaning easily, even lightly.

But those bird-flapping arms of his also point to Ovid, and the idea of metamorphosis. Language in Rybak’s world is shifty and always-changing (homoerotic becomes Homer-erotic), sure. But in these poems, the whole world tends to slide out from under us, if we’re not careful (or even when we are). This is a neighborhood of ghosts, visions, nightmares, wrong numbers, metaphors, and acoustic shadows. Birds don’t act like birds. People act like they’re not dying every day, and after they’re dead, they mail letters to old friends. Nightmares are recounted, or forgotten with a reuben sandwich, to chew at the corners of the mind. Rybak is acutely aware of how we are at once trapped in our lives, and absolutely free. “Balanced on the Beds of Deer” begins with a reassuring solidity of fact and purpose:

Hardwood and brick, plaster and shake,
the thickness of old window panes,
weathered cedar in need of stain.

We’re here to make an offer on this home….

As the narrator goes out with “the inspector, the agent, their clipboards,” they pace the yard, try to find the stakes marking the property line. It’s night, it’s winter, and the narrator gets disoriented:

I fear we’ll never find the stakes, orange flags
smothered in winter, in rigid meaning
that will thaw with our arrival, aware
that life extends to here, and here it ends.
In the hitch and lean of falling at last

my feet stand firm again, balanced
on the beds of deer.

And suddenly we’re in a new place, wilder, more real than reality. It’s the poet’s true home:

I kneel and trace the bend
of haunches, the curve and tuck of bodies,
finger the dimpled message of antlers,
find unhurried tracks flowing out and back.
Here, this clearing, is where I want to live.

From that space, he gains perspective to see “the lot” that they are considering, “the rectangle / and machinery that will knot our lives / in place…” Of course, no one can live in that alternate space. Too soon “Voices call me to the path, the stake / at last discovered in this accident / of heavy breath and wandering.” Life, a matter of “heavy breath and wandering,” shifts back to the ordinary, well-lit and well-heated rooms that become our lives. The true strange recedes, but not too far.

“Heavy breath” is a revealing phrase. Rybak’s poems balance along the continuum of what is heavy, what is light, and play with the notion of weight. In order to get through the dicey days, Rybak’s speakers rely on the things of this world. Wood floors. Tables. Saved bullets and drowned tractors. These things, heavy, solid, real in their very strangeness, don’t exactly save us, but they help us through. By choosing to focus in on a small fact, a moment, we can survive the horror. Here’s an example of just how much weight a hummingbird can balance:

I photographed a hummingbird,
a female, at high shutter speed,
as she needled foxgloves—the green accuracy
and shimmer stopped, flew backwards.
Though none of this was clear to me
until I loaded the corps of images,
zoomed and cropped the cluttered margins
of all I couldn’t bear to see.

The field guide says females are known
by blunt tails, balanced color, but
they lack the fiery neck.
The male has the blood-red throat,
sharply cut
so beauty can spill down his chest.

(What I Did During the War: Hummingbird)

The title (this is one of a series of “What I Did During the War” poems in the book) clues us in to the deeper, heavier reading. In other places within this sequence, Rybak questions the common urge to crop out all we can’t “bear to see” in our nation over the last ten years. In “What I Did During the War: Semaphore” he asks

Will a bumper sticker allow me to feel?
How about a flag? I promise to buy two
if that’s what it takes…

But his “What I Did During the War” sonnets are only a part of this book. This is a poet who lightens the burden with humor. He made me laugh out loud, twice in a row, in the book’s first two poems. And then there’s a poem like “You Can’t Kill Me, Wrong Number,” which is one of those poems I wish like hell I had written.  Rybak likes to depict the “I” of these poems humorously, as a little bit clumsy, a little bit clueless, just a tad the goofy guy flapping his arms, forgetting we’re watching. It’s a ruse, of course, a disguise to protect that more panicky true self. In Rybak’s world, it’s too late to be cool. We are the birds already. Perhaps birds who don’t much act like birds, but with the same nervous hearts hiding in dense foliage. And he knows we’re all ready to drag a wing along the ground, to flap our arms, to pretend we’re something we’re not, trying desperately to distract, in order to protect what’s really at stake.

Sarah Busse co-edits Verse Wisconsin. She was awarded a Pushcart Prize and the WFOP Chapbook Prize in 2011. Once in a while, she still has time to write a poem.