I wish I could explain to you my experience reading Kevin McLellan’s newest collection, Ornitheology. But of course I can’t explain it, not really; that’s part of the splendor and mystery inherent in any meaningful encounter with art. The experience is meant to resist explication, isn’t it? So instead, I’ll say this:
As I was reading Ornitheology, a word kept circling overhead. It felt at once inside and apart from me, and I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the word flapped its syllables like the wings of a bird: ges-talt, ges-talt.
This word-bird was persistent enough that at one point, I stopped to jot down what I knew of its species: an organized whole experienced as greater than the sum of its parts. But once again, I found myself thinking: isn’t this always the goal of art—to create something that is ultimately unable to be duplicated and irreducible? Two poets could start out with the same premise and theme, even the same set of letters or words, and inevitably they would fashion from them something unique, more than a uniform sum or a formulaic accounting-for.
So I went on reading Ornitheology and began to collect certain words and phrases, whole lines and stanzas that struck me as particularly luminous, personally resonant. This is my typical process as a reader, but until my encounter with this book, I had never considered it akin to building a nest. The book is a vast landscape after all, the reader a bird within it, gathering twigs, mud, leaves, and stones in order to weave that smaller, whorled place—that part inside the whole—where we can safely dwell.
Here is McLellan’s poem that first lent itself to my nested awakening:
WHAT HAPPENED IN THE NIGHT
What happened in the triangle of night?
Why this sleeplessness?
Trouble is the bird unable to sleep
You are a bird [and so I am!]
We are all birds looking for treetops
But the trees have gone missing
Also missing your siblings [it’s true, I have none]
They have fallen through the ice
They are underwater
Looking up at the mountains
Perhaps the mountains are your parents [immovable as they are]
Yet you don’t believe [I favor the nest called agnosticism, certain only of uncertainty]
You are also now underwater
Do you believe now? [I favor the nest called maybe, certain only with both doors open]
Because you are becoming colder?
You think I’m numb from the cold
But what comes to mind is alive now
Are you your thoughts? [I used to think so—thought was my nest]
Are you your thoughts under water?
Under the mountains?
Looking up at your parents? [There they are again…]
What are you responsible for?
The thoughts of your parents? [Maybe…]
Which might also be yours
This poem, like so many in Ornitheology, reads as parable or allegory, yet the luminous details and resonant inquiries have been severed from—were never tethered to?—any specific moral imperative. My first thought after reading: How did the poet know? By know, I meant me, my life, the larger world, everything! Perhaps you, Fellow Reader, felt something similar? Or perhaps you will. It’s that paradox of cosmic intimacy: how a single poem can speak to many people at once, the experience as synchronous as it is divergent.
The archetypal imagery McLellan chooses—night, trees, birds, mountains, water, parents—is familiar to all of us, already charged with certain collective meanings. But as the poet deftly shapes and sequences the poem—a sibilant river meandering through the lines (sleeplessness, missing siblings), an anaphoric wind filling out the space (are you-are you, under-under-under)—every reader slips beneath the poem’s spell differently: bathes in it, breathes it in, distinct. No answer is proffered for either our universal or our individual predicaments. In fact, notice how there are no periods, no full-stops at all, only questions marks at the ends of some lines (uncertainty?) and the absence of question marks (certainty of uncertainty?) at the ends of others. It is these question marks in particular that I carry back to my nest.
By now, you may be wondering what else I have gathered to forge my dwelling-place within this text. I’ll show you some of the fodder McLellan has given me in the lines of his poems:
mud: it interrupts tenderness
twig: those lilies are as white as these passing clouds
mud: one isn’t used to certain words yet
leaf: I am/unable to make / a decision in the garden / about the garden
leaf: The girth of prayer / eludes me again
twig: a sky turning pink
mud: light // a seed / the mind must carry // on and onward:
mud: Now / aware of the difficulty to stop / looking (within)
leaf: A throat-breaking silence follows
leaf: I neglected to feed them, the birds (species/ unknown) that lived in my imagination
leaf: You worry about me worrying about you
mud: this place where I can trade/ in all my ghosts for one hero
twig: How / this sentence undresses me. // There are many kinds of music.
mud: Letdown is the smell of warm Windex / just before it strikes the medicine/ cabinet
stone: I decide to oblige
Maybe the stone is not even a stone at all but an egg that intends to hatch, that portends a possibility beyond what is visible now. The sentence “I decide to oblige” appears twice in the twelfth section of “Crown,” the book’s final, masterful poem—its crown, if you will. This section is fittingly titled “Things Are Not What They Seem.” The stone, ancient and obdurate, is also/actually the egg, fresh and mutable.
Of course there’s a pure sonic pleasure in McLellan’s slant-rhyme, assonance of the long “i” within “decide” and “oblige.” (Always an I who decides, an I who obliges.) There’s also the meta-quality of the sentence and its salient repetition. What happens once we decide to oblige? (It is an act of faith, yes? Always an act of faith.) The egg cracks in order to open. The self cracks in order to open. We aren’t sure to what. Art is the cracking and the opening at once. Ornitheology, with spare lyricism and sensory exactitude, broods over us, bores into us. We crack. We open.
All this time, making a nest within this book and inviting you to climb inside it, the word-bird has continued flapping its wings: ges-talt, ges-talt. Is it my imagination, or has the message become more urgent, the wings more insistent? So I open the great birding book of the Internet and type “gestalt greater than sum of parts,” only to find that the psychologist Kurt Koffka who is credited with this phrase did not say greater. In fact, he corrected any student who interpreted gestaltism as a “principle of addition”—any whole becoming more than its individual pieces. Koffka maintained the gestalt was non-hierarchical. Any entity or experience, which must include a work of art, which must include a book of poems, can be parsed into constituent elements, but when integrated, the whole generates an experience separate from those parts—not greater than at all, but independent of them, sui generis.
Which is to say: I’m so taken with this book that I’ve taken pieces of it to show you the raw material from which it is made. It’s a study of birds and a study of God braided together such that we are able to study, by which I mean witness, extraordinary moments like this:
_______________A hummingbird lands
on the boy’s lower lip, picks out and eats
the sesame seed lodged between his front teeth.
Literal? Symbolic? Gospel? Prayer? In my reading, Ornitheology turns out to be a book of psalms.
You’ll need to read it for yourself, though, knowing our experiences of the project will be concentric circles at best, eccentric circles at…other best? different best? There is no hierarchy in these gestalts, remember. For now, let me leave you with my favorite moment in McClellan’s project:
On the brown carpet, an envelope
Eight words, four on each side of a comma. We apprehend the symmetry intellectually, but what we see first is an actual envelope—is yours sleek, horizontal, and white? Or perhaps a tall, manilla one, licked and clasped? We start to put a narrative in place, almost immediately, almost unconsciously, but what we imagine is different. Maybe the envelope has dropped through a mail slot. Can you make out handwriting, a printed label, a stamp? Or maybe someone was on their way to the post office and dropped an envelope they intended to mail? When you see an envelope, do you always imagine a letter inside? Or something else—? Or else—?
But then of course, the line enjambs. Our eyes turn the corner, traverse the white space—almost instantly, but not quite—and we’re there at the unexpected prepositional phrase: of light. It’s not an actual envelope at all, but a way of characterizing the light that comes in through a window or radiates out from a lamp, making a bright shape on the floor. (Nota bene: gestalt, it turns out, means shape.) The literal cracks open into the metaphor, another shape the evolving meaning can take.
Perhaps you, like me, are still inclined to reach out for the envelope made of light? It’s so enticing, so seemingly close at hand. That feeling of irresistibility, of the enticing close-at-hand, is this book—and this image that comes closest to explaining my experience of reading it:
You reach for the envelope. When you open it, the contents envelop and receive you like a nest—assembled from fragments of the physical world, hewn with a language as unique as it is universal. Among other things, you find yourself inside.