This summer at the Juniper Writing Institute, Noy Holland was my workshop instructor. In her workshop, we worked on the sentence. We arrived at the workshop with three of our finest sentences. We left with not many more. While other workshops discussed whole stories and poems, we practiced writing a single sentence—and then, if good, maybe another.
I share this to support the wide-held belief amongst writers that “nobody writes at the sentence-level like Noy Holland.”
Holland’s new novel Bird is about a day in the life Bird, who was once wild and wildly in love with Mickey. Bird—now domesticated—has a home, a husband, a boy, a girl, a dog. The dog may be sick—maybe on the verge of being sick. That is not the point, though. The boy goes to school, the husband goes to work. It is Bird, the girl, the dog, at home. The girl is still nursing, still a baby. Take a bath with the baby? Sure. But first—a cup of rum for Bird. Don’t worry. Nothing happens to Bird, the baby, the boy, the husband, or the dog. That is not the point of this story.
Starting very early in the morning, Bird gets calls and makes calls to Suzie, who is still single, eternally single, reckless, wild, disdainful of domesticity, disdainful of Bird’s domesticity. She does not want to hear about the pinworms Bird’s son has. No. None of that for Suzie please. Suzie does, however, have news of Mickey—maybe.
Throughout the day, it is Mickey that Bird thinks about. Throughout all days, it is Mickey Bird thinks about. Bird tells Suzie she likes the life she has now. Bird tells Suzie this is what she wants. Suzie doesn’t believe Bird.
Bird can’t keep her current life and memories of Mickey separate. The one collapses into the other, and then, reverse. Her young son’s vocabulary infiltrates her memories of Mickey—for example, sparky or ngogn (for dog).. Tenderness for the baby evokes fear of losing Mickey again. The one is inseparable from the other—a story within a story. And within this story a ghost resides. The ghost is Bird’s mother, dead from the beginning of both stories.
I read the first sentence of this book and put it down. “He crossed her wrists behind her, walked her into the room.” I walked around all day with this sentence in my mind. He crossed her wrists behind her, walked her into the room. Later, in the evening, I read the sentence again. I thought of the many ways this sentence could have been written—knew it had been written many ways—and marveled at the sentence landed on. He crossed her wrists behind her, walked her into the room. So elastic.
The elasticity of this first sentence calls to the second sentence. “She was gowned in a towel from the tub, damp still, the day passing—cold, the green fuse blown.” Green fuse blown ends the sentence, leaving the flash of color in the mind’s eye, immediately chased with dark, followed by: The city was flattened, looked to be; it was a poster of itself, grainy, famous in any light.
Every sentence is cared for in this way. Every word of every sentence, every letter of every word, and every sound of every letter is given deep thought and contemplation in this book. Nothing is flippant. Nothing is casual. Nothing is taken for granted or overlooked—not the rolling-up of boogers, plucked kitten soup, junkies, dead dogs, or bloody miscarriages.
The story does not unfurl easily. It wasn’t until close to the end of the book that I was able to put the story together. Time is not linear in this book. It rewinds in increments, jumps forward in leaps—rewinds again. Going back to read it again, I saw that it was all there from the beginning. The first time, however, the relevance of the details eluded me until deep into the book. It was the buoyancy of the language that kept me afloat.
The exploration of a woman’s struggle to reconcile her different selves is not uncharted territory. It is not the subject matter of Bird that is revolutionary (although we are far from saturating the topic). Nor is the structure of the story radical. What feels radical is the acute attention to language. It is this intensity that ultimately matters in the telling of this story, for it is what prohibits clichés of words or thoughts. In this sanctioned space that disallows the ease of the familiar, Bird is allowed to authentically be.