I love a poem which opens by grounding me in a particular context, or way of thinking, or regard of the narrative voice, but then uproots me tornado-style and flings me through the air to where nothing resembling a soft landing greets me. Jessica Young’s beautiful poem is one such system of furious wind, one – stick with me on the tornado thing for just a bit longer, please – which you notice gathering a scant few moments before you feel yourself being lifted out of your shoes.
Consider the voice of the poem. Mighty confident at first! Given the inquisitive title, I pretty much expected Young to spend the entire poem wrestling with the question of how many birds were left. But in the first line of the first stanza, that question is answered with a simple declarative statement, and the narrative voice is immediately imbued with surety and control. “All right,” you, the now-oriented reader, say. “Here we go.”
That first bird, encountered “on the counter next to the sink, feet taped down / with a two-inch rip of cellophane,” seems whimsical in a way. But deeper into the poem, a troubling trend becomes apparent: the birds are all inert. (Well, almost all of them, save for this guy: “In the kitchen, I found / one in my cereal box, pacing the eight inches, / it’s wings pinned to its body…” And even that bird, unambiguously alive, has been hobbled.) Though each bird is described within the context of its place in Young’s quotidian household setting, her imagery is vivid and disturbing, anything but ordinary.
Dead birds sunken into a carton of milk. Birds sealed in plastic bags. A bird “silently hung from a thin wooden hanger.” (The dowel upon which it ought to be perched!) Also unsettling is the reader’s realization that it wasn’t just that one single bird left behind, as Young had so simply and certainly stated. It was a whole damn lot of them. Something’s very wrong.
The denouement of the poem is desperate, and achingly sad, and it simultaneously illuminates the emotional brokenness of the narrative voice and lays to waste the notion of control with which the reader regarded the voice upon entering the poem.
birds. He left so many birds, left so many
god damn birds I don’t know what to do
with myself. Birds in every direction, birds
when I close my eyes. Birds in the shower,
the rain, and I need you to clear them,
please just help me clear them, before
they’re all I see and all I want.
Maudlin? Oh, no way. There’s so much at work beneath the surface of the text.
Both the language and the physical form of these closing lines indicate a sense of overwhelmed helplessness, but what Young does with form to express this helplessness is particularly bodacious. Leading up to the final stanza, the poem unfolds in a series of aesthetically orderly tercets. Three lines each, s’all good, everything’s under control here. But by busting out a 3+ line Sapphic stanza to close the poem, Young pairs the stanza’s textual angst with a physical emulation of the poem’s uncontainable and overflowing despair, a sentiment which Young has been building up to express all along. Next to all those tercets, the final stanza looks like a breached levee.
What most touched me most deeply about the poem, though, is this: The lines “Birds in every direction, / birds when I close my eyes” make apparent the birds’ true origin. The titular “he” didn’t leave birds anywhere, not a one. Isn’t that wild? By acknowledging that the narrative voice sees birds in places that “he” can’t physically reach, Young reveals the birds to be a creation not of “he,” but of the narrative voice.
This reveal is so much more than a superficial literary flourish or “twist.” Something that anybody who has ever been through a nuclear winter of grief – or of heartbreak, loss, whatever – understands is how memories of shared experiences can infiltrate and poison even the most pedestrian of shared objects and spaces. That “he:” Did you ever enjoy a shower with him? Well, now that he’s left you alone, odds are there’s a bird near the soapdish. Do you have a cute story about when you and “he” attempted to make dinner but got too drunk during the prep and screwed it all up? Bird in the box of rotini, or in the pantry. If there are birds in these places, then you probably think of “he” when you wake up in the morning before you even open your eyes. Which explains the birds there on the backs of your eyelids. And so when the “you” is implored for help in the last stanza, Young has brought the reader to the point where the narrative voice has collected a body of evidence substantial enough to corroborate its belief that it just can’t kid itself anymore, and that it can’t go through this aftermath of loss alone. And how can you not agree?
I write as an act of empathy. As a way of mining my own experiences, disguising and embellishing them, and presenting them to the reader in hopes that the reader will take in my work and sense that I get it too. I read for the same reason, and therefore respond viscerally to work like Young’s. “When he left, how many birds did he leave?” is a snapshot of unsettled trauma observed and rendered with such clarity that it feels as though Young lived through it. I hope she hasn’t. If that’s the case, if she indeed hasn’t seen her home transformed into an aviary, and if her poem hooked me using little more than sympathy and a masterful command of craft, then consider me a grateful and slightly – slightly – less lonely dupe.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I write this tribute with a tinge of bitterness. I’m currently part of the rotating team of editors which selects the prose and poetry for The Minnesota Review. We were unanimously enthusiastic about publishing this poem, and then we were all a bunch of sad saddies when we learned that it had been accepted elsewhere. (That elsewhere turned out to be roger, the annual journal put out by Roger Williams University, the lucky dogs.) But even though we weren’t able to publish the poem, what was I supposed to do, pretend it didn’t affect me in ways that only extraordinary literature can?