A Language for Extinction: Zaina Alsous’s A Theory of Birds

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Zaina Alsous’s A Theory of Birds is a marvel in using scientific theory and classification to explore womanhood, exile, minority experience, the effects of war, and post-colonialism. The poet uses different kinds and classifications of birds as a binding metaphor throughout the book to explore these different themes.

In the collection’s opening poem, “Bird Prelude,” the dodo encompasses all. “Inside the dodo bird is a forest,” Alsous writes, and continues naming things within each other, within the forest a “peach analog,” within that, a woman, and each consecutive thing contains a thing within, much like a matryoshka doll. Among other things of the world, we find a lake for funerals and a language for naming, inside of which is an algorithm for de-extinction. The question the poems in A Theory of Birds tries to answer is introduced in this very first poem: what is this language of naming, who speaks it, what are its rules, and how can we use it to define ourselves, thus creating a map for not only surviving, but perhaps also thriving? Alsous stands on the shoulders of scientific poets before her, such as May Swenson, who also uses the scientific method to poke through the fabric of the universe and demand answers, of the universe itself and of humanity.

In order to answer that central question of language, we must first establish who “we” is. In some poems, “we” is the elders:

In North Carolina

I saw a cardinal once
that could have been
my grandmother,

who used to sell popcorn
on the wrong side
of a glass coastline.

In other poems, “we” are the oppressed:

One morning my birth is an ink line
            in the language of plantations

In some poems “we” is the inheritors, the bilingual tourists who belong and don’t belong:

the date seller in Fez greets me
in French fil maghrib I am a tourist

And in some, “we” is the observing scientists:

In order to preserve SCIENCE, the language of speculums rusting by the window, we must shake the graves of birds.

Coming at language from so many different angles creates a paradox; if there are many different speakers in these poems, do they share a common language? And if so, do they have a common audience who can understand this language, or are the ears that listen as varied as the voices that speak? Alsous weaves many references in her poems, dangling Karl Marx, Etel Adnan, Thomas Jefferson, the American Museum of Natural History, Pablo Picasso, Mahmoud Darwish, and Napoleon Bonaparte on a single strand.

With these references, Alsous addresses different groups of people, ranging from the personal to the general, from the self to the divine. She offers her audience intimate morsels of personal stories featuring the speaker’s grandmother and father, and the latter’s command of English:

My father brags about his English over labneh
and zaytoun. His professor would cheer,
This immigrant knows American
history better than you Americans!

As though she were addressing a close friend or family member, Alsous drops these anecdotes, but she does not dwell long in the Arab domestic sphere. The language moves from intimate detail striving for palatability toward a language that challenges the reader in notion and syntax. In “Violence” she writes, in the face of a white audience:

We know the Nazis loved
America; Hitler yearned to paint a twin,

a green room where the dead are everywhere.

In a high school history class, white children raised
their eyebrows when I raised my voice.

I don’t know what they thought I was capable of;
I wish I was more capable of it.

And in the face of a patriarchal audience, she displays strong feminine will. In “Ethnography,” she details the speaker’s fathers’ and grandfathers’ backgrounds, then writes,

And, I understand,
God and the ancestors are still watching
when I touch myself.

Alsous is aware of the intersections that define her: the Arab, the American, the Palestinian, the woman, the immigrant, the historian, the scientist. Yet she resists that definition even as she explores every thread of it. In “Arabidopsis,” she writes:

My first surrender was the need to be understood… I was too wet in the summer to yield saffron. I was too angry to mom. Too demographic for rurality. Too middle class for truth.

And still, the speaker does yearn to be seen, to be understood. The final lines of “Can the Dodo Bird Speak” are: “Can you see me?          Can you see me?”

Who is she then, this speaker who yearns for recognition, who defies all expectations and definitions, even her own? And how can readers reach her? She is a bird who finds herself “…past the city of eve,” she is formless, “I imagine the sculpture assemble me into slab, an effigy of clay,” she is a deity, “all the names of God held captive by I.”

And if you ask of her to come to you, her answer is refusal. “To answer your question: I refuse.”

Instead, Alsous invites us on a journey (if we dare) deep into the heart of the world: language. Driven by the threat of extinction, the speakers in these poems carry themselves with a sense of urgency. The poems flit back and forth between hope against extinction and resignation to the end of the material world they inhabit. If we are attuned to the beating of the world, we would know that “Trees speak a language we could learn. To learn means to acknowledge you don’t know all the howls of how, all the yets to yet, all the zygote beasts of ferment” and that if we also “struggle with legibility, an abstract Labor” then we would know that illegibility, discarding reason, is the only way forward.

And so, illegibility becomes the only language from here. Late in the collection, Alsous writes:

            Now excuse me as I address my sisters, the extinct birds:

                                                 trtrtrtrtrtrddddd idjiojioiooo



                                                Jjjaaa7&&3&&           teacherteacher



                        tuuuuuuuuuuuweeeeeeouuuuiiiii iiiii ooo weeee


                                                             i i i o

                                                                      Ai a i ai a i i i i o ia








Toward the end of A Theory for Birds, Alsous prepares for a new world. Like the poems of May Swenson before her, Alsous uses science and scientific theory to demand something of us. But before the theory comes the wondering. Where Swenson says,

my poems are prayers to a god
to come into being

Alsous replies,

Do you still miss her?

God, or teta, it was a woman

And where Swenson calls for observation,


                                                 is it about

                                    the universe,

                                    the universe about us stretching out?

Alsous responds,

Eye look twice, and I eye
alight again.

To survive extinction then, is to invent a language for an after, a language for absence, to carry the burden of listening, and “Listen, next time, the flowers are naming themselves.”

Aiya Sakr was born in the United States but grew up in Amman, Jordan, with Palestinian, Egyptian, and Jordanian heritage. She is the author of Her Bones Catch the Sun (The Poet’s Haven, 2018). A Pushcart Prize nominee, her poems have appeared in Mizna, Nimrod, and elsewhere. She has a master’s degree in literature and writing from Utah State University. Currently, she’s completing an MFA in poetry at Purdue University. More from this author →