A Book with Wings: Bird Book by Sidney Wade

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Sidney Wade, an American poet who has published seven books of poems, been a Fulbright scholar, published multiple poems in theNew Yorker and other national journals, and has served as the president of AWP has a new book of poems out.

Birds are the subject, the self-symbols of many poets. Birds, perhaps like poetry, face a distressing decline. As the National Audubon Society reported on May 28, 2016, “…Audubon scientists published a study in Ecosphere revealing that one-third of wintering North American bird populations have declined since 1966.”

If these changes concern you, Sidney Wade, the poet, has a book you might want to read: Bird Book. It’s a collection of poems that playfully encounter many species of North American birds like the whooping crane and the loon. One poem, “Bird Words” spends time just listing many delightful names of birds, “tanager/ gnat-catcher / caspian tern / goat sucker/ chimney swift/  canvasback / erne / bristle-thighed / curlew and / mandarin duck…” While it can be incantatory in its music, the book is not an over-serious jeremiad, but an appreciation that deploys light-hearted listening and looking as the basis of its appeal. It’s a bird walk with a delightful guide who doesn’t miss a note or a flash of wing.

If you have the chance to go on a bird walk with Sidney Wade, as I have on the campus of The University of the South at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference where she teaches for two weeks in the summer and often leads bird walks, you’ll see and hear a lot of birds, and you won’t be able to miss Wade’s generous enthusiasm. She knows enough about birds to be able to identify many species unseen by their audible calls alone. Her writing, like her ear, is informed by the echoing musicality of birds.

On the bird walk I took, Wade seemed mostly delighted. Happy to share the experience. Humble, provocative, and searching, too, like these poems. If you don’t ever get to walk away from the stone towers of Sewanee, out Texas Avenue towards the Equestrian Center with Wade, at least you can read her new collection, which is full of poetic birding adventures and the poetry of birds. The poems, like the annual walks, seem to delight in the shared discovery of those she guides. Many of the poems directly narrate bird watching experiences, like “Birding at the Dairy” and “Birding at the Hamilton County Phosphate Mines.”

Wade’s first poem in the New Yorker was a bird poem: “White Birds” published in 1984 (not included in Bird Book). More than personifying birds, it birdified persons: “I remember your white body…” Her most recent poem there, “Burrowing Owl,” published in 2011, is included in the new collection and does personify the owl.

Burrowing Owl

Very odd,
this little cloud

in trousers
in the sandy

favored by

prairie dog
and gopher

On the mound

at the mouth-hole,
he scouts around

with sybilline
yellow eyes

and then, owl-
wise, decides

to clean house.
He dives down

and soon
great clouds

of smudge come
flying out,

his home now
clean as a bone.

A diurnal owl,
he’s upside-down

and inside-out,
at ease

not in the trees,
but underground,

where his mate

on her eight
fragile moons

in an immaculate
burrow whose

contours are lined
with cow manure.

Trousers? We laugh at the image. And the recurring “ow” sound delights the ear—trousers, cloud, mound, mouth, and scout—as it celebrates and echoes the word “owl.” The burrowing owl I saw by a geothermal electric plant in southern California seemed to have extraordinarily long legs. I was reminded of how my grandfather wore his pants high. Not just for the sound, but for the image, trousers is the perfect word. But have our opinions about the pathetic fallacy shifted so radically in three decades that a serious academic poet, professor emeritus at The University of Florida, can blithely commit one? It would be interesting to study the frequency of its occurrence in national journals like the New Yorker over time.

Around the same time “White Birds” was published, a poetry writing professor and prominent editor at Oberlin scolded me for describing my two-handed grip on a loon (I was trying to save it from a fishing net) as similar to holding a brownie box camera. To that editor/professor’s aesthetic, I had naively violated a sacred rule: that no animal life should be compared to a human or a human contraption. He shouted expletives at me, and the whole workshop got red in the face. We all had to take a break. Poetry was very serious in the 80s! Wade did not commit a pathetic fallacy in her very serious “White Birds” (about a human relationship in jeopardy), but she does here—in a lighter tone, but still part of the book’s larger (also sacred?) conservation purpose, and it still doesn’t bother me.

I understand the argument that non-human life described with human traits can lead an audience to an ignorant, non-scientific, overly-emotion-laden, self-centered conception of the natural world. Burrowing owls are just cute little pants-wearing humans who live in the ground. Wrong. But is the destruction of bird habitat for all human purposes not also a rejection of science, a self-centered and ignorant behavior? If we reject our capability of ever understanding animal life and the natural world in comparison to ourselves and our emotions, as the pathetic fallacy seems to support, do we not actually endanger that natural world? We may, in our emotional, ignorant minds, need comparisons to the human to actually value, if not understand, the non-human, maybe even to save ourselves from habitat destruction. As an owl in another poem, “The Chickasaw Trees,” tries to warn us, “nouns are sung / from the trees / where an owl / frowns / in sleep / and later / comes / in the guise / of ghost / to say  / he knows/ that all / the people / in a world / without bees / are lost.”

All anti-sentimental crusades aside, the bird in a poem is often recognized as a figure of the poet. It is Wade who warns us that humans need bees. It seems we have swayed back to a sentimental poetics, and hopefully not too late to save the world.

Another way Wade birdifies the world is in the music of these poems. The human voice of Bird Book sings like a forest bird. The rhymes chime like the echoed calls of birds heard on a branch. They sing and bling and then, just when you begin to think she’s made a hash of Ogden Nash, the lines stretch and extend like a skinny path through a calm quiet wood. Many of the poems of the book follow this format. Those few with longer lines also sing with meter and rhyme. One of my favorites is “Snowy Owl”:

A woman who looked like a snowy owl
knocked on my door last winter.
A bunch of artificial violets was pinned
to her gray woolen coat. She trudged through the snow

in high heels, sheathed in opaque plastic boots.
Her smile was bright as a blast furnace,
and her eyes, behind double-thick glasses,
brimmed over with inspiration. “Do you,”

she began, “ever think about living forever?”
“Sometimes,” I replied, staring into her yellow eyes.
She then reached in her purse and pulled out a mouse
that swung from her gnarled and horny fingertips, dead.

“The gift of eternal life is not for mice.
It is for us, who know the beauty of death,
the light in the blood as it falls to earth.
Who know too the good liquor of loss,

blue terror in the fall from a great height.
Who know cruelty can be beautiful
and love a poor relation in this fine world full
of contradiction.” After this she smiled

more brightly than ever and with great gentleness
and pride restored the dead mouse to her purse.
“Do you have any questions?” she inquired.
I thought for a moment and said, “yes,

are you partial to a gamy cassoulet?
Perhaps I could persuade you to step in for dinner?”
She puffed out her chest and glared. The violets shivered.
She then wheeled on a sharp heel and flew away.

Those violets shivering are, of course, the pathetic fallacy again. Too much emotion! Too human! Well it’s a sneaky one, because maybe it was the wind. But in the heightened and surreal world of the poem, where a strange woman at the door has all the traits of an owl (even her words, “Do you” sound owlish), of course the violets shivered. The woman at the door announces the surreal and contradicted world. She anticipates that we don’t get to live forever. She finds beauty in loss. There is an acceptance of the strangeness of things in these poems, even a generosity big enough to invite the oracle in for dinner. Another generous figure in this world has to be a new publisher of poetry.

Bird Book is Atelier26 Books’s first book of poetry (previously, they have only published prose). The editor and publisher, M. Allen Cunningham, has authored and edited several of his own books in the catalog. He runs the press out of a bedroom in Portland, Oregon with financial support from the Oregon Community Foundation. The interior images in the book are cut and cropped black and white renderings of color plates by John James Audubon. The illustrated birds’ bodies emerge from the outside corners of the pages in full-bleed print, their beaks pointing to the text of the attendant poem that names them. The effect is visually lovely. Occasionally, though, the bleed is interrupted by a thin band of white between the bottom of the illustration and the edge the page, creating a distraction when so many of the pages otherwise look expertly designed and cut. Regardless, every book publisher should, at least once, produce a book that begins with an epigraph from Gregory Orr’s poem “King Vulture,” like Bird Book does:

Everything dies. Nothing dies.
That’s the story of the Book.

If the Book were a bird
Those two sentences
Would be its wings.

This book has wings. At the end of Orr’s poem, the king vulture takes its carrion “and turns / it into sky- / born word.” Wade can be pleasingly aware of language and its devices. She writes in the poem “Bird Words,” and persuades us in Bird Book that [birds are] “…the feathered / heart verbs / of the world.”

Edward Derby, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, has previously published reviews at The Rumpus and Kenyon Review Online. His poems have appeared in numerous journals. He hopes to receive his MFA in poetry from the University of San Francisco in December. More from this author →