Reviews

The longing, in language, for a connection

A review of 'Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan'

Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan

Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan

by Jean Daive, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop

Burning Deck 2009, 136 pages, $14, ISBN 978-1-886224-97-1

Any discussion of Jean Daive’s Under The Dome: Walks with Paul Celan must start with admiration for the work of the translator. For the French poet Daive’s chronicle of Paris walks with the great German-language poet Celan is a treatise on the question of translation, operating at precisely the point where translation meets poetry. That is, at the edge of the incommunicable. The allure of this odd chronicle has to do in part with an endlessly short-circuited intimacy during a half-decade of Paris walks — a failure that is clearly a trope for the difficulty of language to transmit over deep and definite gulfs. Each poet is conversant in the other’s language, indeed, translates the other. Yet so many of their conversations are riddled with ellipses, with gaps, with odd performative reaches, that the reader is endlessly aware of the tension between languages, between systems and ways of speaking. Rosmarie Waldrop does a remarkable job of scoring the sense of moving between systems, through all that gets left in the abyss. One can literally feel in the brilliant Waldrop English-language version of Sous la coupole that restlessness of the mind, that reach that involves a continual motion between different strives toward poetic gesture. Her translation of this chronicle which is so much, in itself, about translation, is one of those exemplary renderings from one language to another that adds as much or more than gets subtracted.

My first encounter with Rosmarie Waldrop’s writing was A Key Into The Language of America, a poetic reinscription of a colonial document about an essentially missing indigenous language in the Rhode Island region. I was at first troubled reading the text, which is both poetry and essay, by the inference that what is left of the missing “Indian” is alone (my italics) difficult place names. But the German-born American poet Waldrop’s project turned out to involve a language-focused reveal of the limits of consciousness  prevailing in her adopted culture vis-à-vis the indigenous Other. It was a serious interrogation and poetic re-splicing of a “progressive” 1643 chronicle about the “Indians” of the region and their language, written by Roger Williams, whose very presence as a colonizer of Indian land augured the cultural genocide to come. A good example of the layers of time and thinking involved in translation.

In translating Daive’s Under The Dome, Waldrop is acting in the more usual translator mode of directly channeling into English a French-language story involving a German-Jewish poet refugee from a mid-twentieth-century European genocide. It would be tempting as a translator to smooth over the gaps, the awkwardnesses, the misfires, a little, for the sake of clarity. But this important translation excavates what Benjamin called the poetic essential of the text by deploying language that very quietly, unobtrusively, has the effect of metonymically underscoring the layers of transliteration already present in Jean Daive’s recounting of his 1965–1970 Paris walks with the great Celan. Written twenty years after the fact, in prose fragments that often recall, in tone, the discursive language acts of nouvelle vague cinema, the translation is in turn taking place a couple of decades after the text is written. But time cannot alter the longing, in language, for connection. I find myself almost physically experiencing the actual sense of continual transition between systems of thinking, which is, indeed, the poetic secret of the text and of Waldrop’s adroit translation. Precisely because the effect is cumulative, is a metonymic progression, it is difficult to provide an analysis in this space of how she accomplishes this task. Sometimes, it is with what seems to me an odd choice for an English rendering. Here is a tiny instance of that:

— There is a trap. There is a trap between Paul and me.

I might have been tempted, here, to reach a little more. The English “There is a trap between Paul and me” is odd. Speculating on the French version, which I have not seen, I might have said: “There is a serious complication with Paul.” But Waldrop, the poet, does not water the surface language for the sake of “message”; she takes it to the other extreme, and may, in so doing, reveal the text’s most profound measure.

THERE IS A TRAP:

If Daive’s memoir already suggests, with its semantic leaps, the “trap” of gaps or abysses experienced in conversations with Celan, the quite lovely prose fragments recounting those Paris walks also blur time. And the French poet’s refusal to make the slightest concession to the linear draw of prose releases the (non)meaning from the “trap” of that relationship. Like the donkey that Daive watches while writing the chronicle in a Greek Island café two decades later, Celan augments distance by remaining a static image that “does not let anything encroach …” Though he [the donkey!] “cries, he weeps, he brays,” what the chronicler Daive hears, in the untranslatable braying, is the anguish of the “still living mass fall into the sea, into the Seine.” The mass is Celan’s suiciding body. That the braying stands in for the poet in itself gives pause. A pause full of telling vectors about Daive’s take on the relationship. Celan is always leaving. That is, he is always disappearing into the obliquity of his own interior, reappearing seemingly with effort, with a certain pomp that may simply be the awkardness, again, of transiting syntax, so conversation seems performed:

— For it is said you shall translate on the seventh day.

— In which passage of the Bible is this written?

— A passage in my head.

— Ah.

And Jean Daive, the acolyte, panting for acknowlegement, appreciation, suffers from this distance, yet in that inimitable French way of seeing things for what they are, knows himself how to keep an ironic distance. He notes how often Celan, as they take leave of each other in front of the older poet’s apartment building, suggests “with perfectly controlled embarrassment, (that) I don’t come up because the cleaning woman didn’t come today.” Daive insists over and over again on Celan’s reticence. Re: the wartime deportation of his parents, for example, which he dislikes talking about. Or, Celan citing a remembered poster: “The One Alone exists.” — I listen, says Daive. I listen above all to his jerky diction that detaches every word, almost every syllable. The words so detached plunge into a state of waiting that indefinitely prolongs my listening. Paul creates an aquarium effect that muffles what he communicates, makes it hard to hold onto, hold onto immediately. He summons Celan’s morbidity — recounting how a dormitory nurse would wake the children mornings with Debout les morts (Up, you corpses).  Daive, watching the donkey, recalls, one more time, the report of Celan disappearing, then of his body found in the Seine.

Yet, there is nothing morbid about the walks. — As soon as we talk the world seems to lose some of its solidity, and its move toward loss that interests us. But we cannot always face it. It requires an availability that is scorching, says Celan, while Daive contemplates the golden light (that) falls on our approaching fingers, fingers about to disturb with a golden-yellow handshake the usual distance. Always the hope of gold. The gold of poetry. The gold of a sunset. The gold of wonder around the next corner. One can feel the still (then) compelling shadow of surrealism on Daive’s recounting of their movements about the city. The strangeness of “hazard (risk)” that we, contemporaneously, trust less and less. Their walks awaken in the reader the retro desire to live as they seemed to. With time to sit and stroll and seek, in verbal exchanges that sometimes border on nonsense, the better to allow whatever can to surface. The better to find that place where angst meets pleasure in endless awkward conversations (cited extensively by Daive decades later — was he taking notes all the time?) that seem to be the map of their quest. — The search for groundlights is not enough (Celan). There’s the axis to be followed and … forgotten. You must above all find lightness — buoyancy — The permanent defiance of gravity.

We can't do it without the rose

A review of the film 'Under Foot & Overstory'

Under Foot & Understory

Under Foot & Overstory

a film written by Jason Livingston

16mm, 34:30 min, 2005

I’ve been captivated by the title of a Joseph Beuys lithograph since I saw it years ago. The image features the artist at his Documenta V desk in 1972, where for a hundred days he tirelessly debated radical politics with gallery visitors. An alert, focused Beuys anchors the bottom center; a section of the back of a head (his conversant) dominates the left foreground.  On the tabletop separating them, a single long-stemmed rose reaches up into the blank top portion of the composition, slicing the image in half. We can’t do it without the rose. What can’t be done without the flower and why must it go unnamed? Why the plural pronoun: “we”? Two heads converge with the help of a plant — and visuality is implicated. The image itself would wilt without the graphic aid of the flower — its diagonal stem line, tight crowd of petals, leaves pushing back at the picture plane in every direction. The rose is essential for some constellation of conversation, communion and composition.

There are no roses in Jason Livingston’s 16mm film Under Foot & Overstory (2005), but there are dozens of tall wild flowers in full and distinct bloom. Delighted, saturated, undeniably first-person views of burgundy and fuchsia petaled plants, Queen Anne’s Lace, bluebells, dandelions — as well as insects that roam them — punctuate this work in which the filmmaker himself is a double-headed creature, sitting at both sides of the table. He is both observer and participant as he documents the process by which the Friends of Hickory Hill Park, of which he is a member, struggle to produce a mission statement to protect two hundred acres of untouched land in Iowa City, currently threatened by development. His own “I” comes and goes willingly as he listens carefully to the way language works. The sound track consists, in part, of fragments from the transcript of collaborative composition-in-process, swaths from the stream of mission statement deliberation. Members labor over sentence construction and word choice. “I have a small issue with using the word natural twice,” the filmmaker himself declares. Others weigh in: “I’m a believer in bullets, colons.” “It doesn't have to be poetry — it’s a mission statement.”

Perhaps not, but poetry is strewn throughout the film, less an object or intention than a force — an animating presence. Livingston is an essayist, but his eyes are set firmly on the poetic mobility of language shards — he’s a collector and reassembler of samples from multiple and contradictory sources of mind-in-nature and he asks us to read them all. Accompanying the conversations of the convening Friends are images from a larger constellation of park-talk that turn language-making into something we can see: the printing press production of park calendars; journalists jotting on legal pads; views of a hand-scripted park journal written by a local outlaw; and a charades sequence, shot in black and white in the snowy woods, that dominates the film’s middle section (bracketed on each end by a piece of paper announcing “intermission”). Each is a fragment of inscription, a close up of the meeting place where the chaotic stream of language meets the ground of materiality.

… encouraging the well being of physical and mental — mind, body and spirit, if we want to go — go in that — crazy little thing — well-being — of mind, body and spirit — that’s good — encouraging? well-being. enhancing? I like enhancing. enhancing, that’s great. ok. would it be a mistake to move into words like contemplation? exercise? relaxation? contemplation. reflection? reflection is a nice word.

everybody could come up with a list of … these words, that they get out of it. by saying just well-being, we leave that open to — I think that’s right — open to personal interpretation. enhancement of personal well-being. overall well-being. I just rather — without getting into those touchy-feely words that — not that I’m opposed to them.

this is an interesting struggle we’re having here. I don’t mind using the word spiritual. I don’t mind using the word spirit. It’s that phrase — it connotes too much. yep. uh huh. but I think promoting well-being might be something …

which in itself has … carries meaning. it’s not empty. well-being.

does anyone feel like we've lost something significant? 

do we have a word processor?

We enter Under Foot and Overstory on a dirt path cutting through an emerald swath of woods, the image slightly rising and falling with the motion of what feels like the filmmaker’s feet. The up-and-down treading reappears, enlarged, in the ongoing joining of ground and sky in the film — from bare feet (again, the filmmaker’s, it seems) landing on grass to upward views of a snow-caked tree and towering flowers resting against a sky that couldn’t be bluer. This vertical travel is abstract as well: the film’s reverential consideration of the lush parkland (its spiritual potential) is joined by a steady taking-in of its most mundane and material elements — clipboards, throat clearings, bullet points.

The distinction between the filmmaker’s own feet and those of others blurs; the first-person singular morphs into the plural (again: we can’t do it without the rose). The rhythm of Livingston’s opening walk catalyzes a cascade of park-traversal from every direction and at every rhythm: a woman repeatedly roams its fields with a camera; a little boy bounces down a walkway with his father; a monarch jaggedly flutters; cross-country skiers glide by. Wheelbarrows, tractors, and shovels also make their own tracks in the land — at this point the “we” of the film includes the developers, too. All these crossings of the park, all the indentations made in the ground, are part of the cosmos of inscription that Livingston is following. 

The variety of language threads and registers present in the film — bureaucratic, poetic, public, private, spoken, written — stems in part from Livingston’s insistence on relentless listening over stylistic continuity. He describes Under Foot & Overstory as an experiment with placing “intervals of very subjective visionary-inflected styles of shooting” side by side with the reformist and persuasive impulses of documentary. As one of the mission statement writers says: “the problem with having a lot of voices — you end up with different styles.”

Toward the end of the film, the Friends of Hickory Hill Park struggle to know how or if “permanence” should appear in the mission statement — can they demand the infinite protection of this public land? But in the final moments, next to views of the sun dropping in a burnt orange sky, text informs us that “soon only a handful of private homeowners will see this sunset — developers bought this vantage point.” Livingston returns to the emerald path of the film’s first shot — but this time makes a 360-degree rotation, revealing the fact that there are multiple paths at this juncture.  He chooses one, and soon we are out of the woods, and the dirt path turns to a new stretch of sidewalk. The camera finds the place where ground and concrete meet and pivots, so that the screen is split in two.

A detour from more traditional paths of composition

A review of 'An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris'

An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris

An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris

by Georges Perec. translated by Marc Lowenthal.

Wakefield Press 2010, 72 pages, 12.95, ISBN 978-0-9841155-2-5

The objective of a Baudelairian flâneur or Situationist psychogeographer might be described as the revelation of what’s hidden in plain sight. With their modern walkabouts, these conceptual strollers break free of the direct lines of commuter travel and instead happily wallow in an inefficient dawdle. A close cousin, the aspirations of constraint-based writing can be said to be the exploration of the “potential” literature created via similarly artificial detours from more traditional paths of composition.

An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris was written by Georges Perec during a gray Parisian weekend in October 1974. The stated intention was to “describe … that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds.” A nonambulatory flâneur, Perec sets himself up at a cafe in Place Saint-Sulpice to do as his directive epigraph of Life: A User’s Manual orders us to do also: “Look with all your eyes, look.”

Of course the underlying joke of An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris is the absolute impossibility of exhaustively documenting any environment, however quotidian, or any instant of time, however short, especially with the beautifully linear and limited tool of language. While pretending a goal and attitude of rigor, Perec’s simultaneous assumption of futility colors the work with a shade of melancholic comedy — a cosmic joke with failure and constant loss as the punchline.

Take for instance his quickly (and quietly) abandoned categories from the morning of the first day: “Outline of an inventory of some strictly visible things,” (which includes letters and numbers) “Trajectories,” (which includes the direction of the buses, and “Colors” (which are reductively plain, e.g. a “blue bag” and a “green raincoat”). These arbitrary categories slyly underscore their own arbitrariness (you could even say their own silliness). By beginning his project immediately with a feint at cataloging the infinite (e.g. trajectories) Perec initiates a one-person epistemological Laurel and Hardy routine.

Part of the comedy too is the Sisyphean cycle of trying, giving up, and then starting all over again. A poignant example of this occurs with Perec’s observation of buses through the city square. He’s constantly noting them:

The 96 goes to Montparnasse station (6).
A 63 passes by. A 96 passes by
(11).
A 70 goes by, full
(22).

In the middle of the work he interrupts to comment parenthetically:

(why count the buses? Probably because they’re recognizable and regular: they
   cut up time, they punctuate the background noise; ultimately, they’re
   foreseeable
The rest seems random, improbable, anarchic; the buses pass by because they
  have to pass by, but nothing requires a car to back up, or a man to have a bag
  marked with a big “M” of Monoprix, or a customer to order a coffee instead
  of a beer…)
(22–3).

But then the following morning:

Buses pass by. I’ve lost all interest in them (29).

Yet soon enough he’s back to noting them:

A bus: “Percival Tours” (31).
A 96 goes by
(42).
The 63
(45).
The 96
(47).

Constraint-based writing might also be described as the poetic residue of someone else’s thought experiment. So in addition to the re-realization of his chosen task’s impossibility, in Perec’s shifting categories and evolving real-time commentary, we’re also privy to other discoveries. For instance, due to Perec’s time-stamped headers, we get a sense of the speed of thought, at least of Perec’s, which feels both leisurely and focused. The reader gets, in other words, a very real sense of how long it takes Perec to write an entry so that, despite the noted impossibility, a rather vicarious understanding of Perec’s weekend is achieved.

Ultimately then the inherently doomed objective goal of exhausting a place in Paris leads us surprisingly to the successful portrait of a particular subjectivity. It’s a stunning and bittersweet act of intimacy and remembrance. For example in the following passage: the startling moment of Perec’s inclusion of the word “splendid.” Interrupting the stream of so-called facts, this simple adjective for a moment sights Paris pigeons uniquely through Perec’s eyes:

An 87. A 70. A 63.
Rue Bonaparte, a cement mixer, orange.

A basset hound. A man with a bow tie. An 86.

The wind is making the leaves on the trees move.
A 70.
It is one fifty.

SNCF parcels service.
The people from the funeral procession have entered the church
Passage of a driving-school car, a 96, a 63, a florist’s van, blue, which parks next
   to the undertaker’s van and from which a funeral wreath is taken.

In splendid unity, the pigeons go round the square and return to settle on the
   district council building’s gutter.
There are five taxis at the taxi stand.
An 87 goes by, a 63 goes by.
(13–14)

This handsomely designed book from Wakefield Press also includes a moving translator’s afterword, which argues (thought provokingly if not entirely convincingly) that An Attempt can be seen as an “inverted version” of Perec’s masterwork Life: A User’s Manual. Certainly larger than its slim dimensions indicate, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris is, in the end, less a strategically flawed urban snapshot than a mysterious and craftily unauthorized autobiography.

A website for one shoe

A review of 'The Ministry of Walking'

In 2004, The Ministry of Walking rose out of the dust and snow in the conspicuously automobile-centric Calgary, where a group of artists were determined to undermine the car culture and find some cracks and crevices of pleasure/growth in the concrete of the streets. The website was started as a way for members to document the ideas that the group developed through walking.The project hopes to entice commuting Calgarian suburbanites, as well as people in other cities, to take on the slowed-down pleasures of urban exploration on foot.

When asked to write something about MOW’s website, I have to admit, I was a bit afraid it would be a set of highly developed plans to enliven the city and empower the populace with maps for a dérive. Happily I found the website was more of an unfinished master plan with only a few links and a downloadable Wander Guide. It comes across as though everyone from the Ministry is off somewhere else and not tied to the computer designing webpages that explain what one might find “out there.” After quickly coming to the ends of each of the pages in the MOW website, I decide to follow the links to the members. From one of them I come to this end:

Writing this now, I attempt to return to the link from which I stumbled on this text/graphic, to quote exactly which member lead me here, but nothing navigates me towards this page any more! I ask myself if the MOW website has been updated or if I had a unique experience? Luckily, I have proof of that journey because at the time I was struck by the absurdity of it and did a screen grab. Knowing this link has been lost to us now, I feel luckier than before somehow. MOW member Donna Akrey explains that the website is pretty much just one shoe. “You need to go find or already have the other shoe somewhere to make it work for you.”

Armed with MOW’s downloadable Wander Guide, “our latest tool in ongoing efforts to develop a meandering urban public (MUP),” I proceed with my research by deciding to take two actions: do a walk as proposed by MOW in each of the five cities I would be passing through in the coming weeks; and wander as a member of the MUP through my stacks and the internet in reaction to MOW’s scant website and what it proposes. 

Of the eight suggested walks in the Wander Guide I am particularly drawn to two. The Seeking Silence Excursion recommends we “notice the change in sound throughout the transition between locations”; Stack Maneuver is more of a disruptive, blind negotiation of an urban center at lunchtime, where one is told to carry a stack of empty boxes in front of them. The second of the two makes me think of Samuel Beckett’s stage piece “Quad” where four people continuously navigate a square, never bumping into each other even though they are possessed by haste and their own routine. I go YouTubing to find it and am mesmerized by “Quad” but it makes me think of how my planned travels would also include train, plane, ferry, and shuttle bus. I speculate as to whether I can approach my walks in these terminals in the same MUP way? What constitutes an appropriate site for a walk?

from “City on a Roof – Rules of the Game” a non-copyrighted box-set catalogue of architects' reflection on urban development, during a conference in Groningen, Netherlands, 2006.

Jonas Mekas comes to mind for his reflections on tourists in the city. On Tuesday December 4, 2007, of his series entitled 365 Mekas tells us, “(The) tourist is a perfect example of someone who has reached a zen state of life. It does not matter what kind of food, good or bad, it does not matter, you just eat anything. And you don’t care what will happen to you, you know, so what? You are in a bliss of existence and nothing really matters, including yourself.” I suspect that Mekas’s tourist is already well underway to being a MUP although one is not supposed to want to be a tourist. According to the MOW Wander Guide however, locals can be guilty of the “Point-A-to-B” Syndrome, which is said to cause symptoms such as melancholy, alienation and fatigue and for this reason I decide to ask Corey Frost to go on assignment, and walk over to the Zebulon in Brooklyn, and drop off a copy of “Dwelling for Intervals” for Jonas Mekas. I send JM an email to tell him of the delivery (maybe he too will walk).

I decide to ask MOW members to answer a few questions about the origin of The Ministry of Walking and their role in it. From their varied answers I find discrepancy about exactly when it all began and who was involved. Members are apologetic for the out-of-date state of the website; emphatic about it having no connection to the Ministry of Silly Walks (a Monty Python skit); and several tell me they are suffering from foot ailments but are still walking, albeit with different shoes. Most members continue “the walk” as part of their everyday and artistic practice but proof of this is on their individual websites and blogs rather than back at The Ministry. I want to reassure them that they are really doing enough, but it's too late as suddenly I am privy to a slew of group emails among the members promising each other more shows, auctions, actions, interactions … in short, more paths.

Jorge Luis Borges from “Labyrinths” 1964.

I ask the members of MOW if maps and games are related. Kay Burns answered:

“They can be I suppose, but I would have to say I haven’t experienced any map-related games that enhance my experience of a place in any kind of profound way. Having said that, I think the idea of maps as some kind of “truthful representation” of place is maybe rather game like — in terms of possible deceptions, exaggerations, and disjointedness. Don’t forget, maps spelled backwards is spam – think about what that means!

The five cities and the results of my research are as follows:

Rotterdam — I want to follow the shifting bricks and sand of the mammoth construction projects of the inner-city but instead I am struck by the revolving doors on all corners of every intersection.

Amsterdam — I (happily) find myself lost again — inadvertently on MOW’s Spiral Walk.

New York — With an almost-fifty-year-old dandy and a twin, we give up all recommendations and are absorbed by that elusive other and bridges, simultaneously shooting from three different heights.

Toronto — My travel suitcase drags behind me like a reluctant dog, the streets stretch in front of me like a lapping tongue. Sunshine and a stiff shoulder.

Montreal — Old haunt new ghosts. I buy some new shoes in Little Italy. Day does too.

Two weeks later, back in Rotterdam, Iva Bittova from the Czech Republic is in town performing. I have just bought a ticket when she arrives with her violin in a backpack. She asks at the kiosk where she will be performing and then turns and compliments me on my new shoes. I want to give her one.

What works so well about the MOW website is that it doesn’t really give much. This open project draws you to the ends of a few short routes on the website, only to shove you off with no obligation to call home or check in later. It is a collection of loose beginnings, as though the members met there to discuss how to start and then left the page/site, to be engrossed in their own urban undertakings. Having departed from the original directives so many years ago, a few members lovingly send a postcard home from time to time (a video or still image with some text). The rest happens off the page, underfoot, in our heads, and in the collaborative spaces between.

From Christopher Dewdney’s “Spring Trances in the Control Emerald Night” 1974.

Not just to see and note the birds but to say them

A review of 'A Reading: Birds'

A Reading: Birds

A Reading: Birds

by Beverly Dahlen

little red leaves 2011, $8, ISBN chapbook

little red leaves / down to bare words

Both the name of this publisher and the first line of the book’s single poem answer each other, in their two four-syllable joinings of language to the natural world. But the words in the book are not so bare, sewn into covers whose outer life consists of light blue and white geometrical patterns that alternatively make me think of abstracted patterns of clouds and a weaving together of the world. Cranes and flowers grace the inner covers, and in the poems, a weaving of words, with little abstraction, though indicating a great and perhaps mystical geometry of nature.

The cranes flying through the fog, out of the sun into the
open valley to feed, with ducks and geese and tundra
swans, the flocks so numerous in the old days they say the
sky was darkened for hours with their passing. (9)

Always, in this book, words as well as birds. The passage above ends,

The legendary, nearly mythical abundance of that time, how to say
it or see it or imagine that time. (9)


first printing of A Reading: Birds, by Beverly Dahlen published by Little Red Leaves' textile series, February 2011

“That time” is, at times in this lovely (in all ways) book, ancient, or prehistoric, or the time of the author’s youth (which can also be mythical in one’s mind). Seeing “the great central / valley of California [summer the first time I saw it, men tossing watermelons hand to hand into / a boxcar on the siding: Modesto?]” (7).

Time and memory give way to a presence of all-time, “Standing there in the air.” (13)

Remember, though, in this book that presents and invokes both the real and imagined natural world, the consciousness of writing such a world, the task is not just to see and note the birds but to say them, and not to say them only as an individual, but as part of the human “we.”

we say
“we” say

            cranes

croaking out of the sky (5–6)

In such saying, we partake of literary imagining, noting, and questioning the natural world, from William Blake’s “Little lamb, who made thee?” (14) to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “I caught this morning morning’s minion” (13), whose very movement of syllables — sprung as they are — calls to mind the flight of birds, particularly its sometimes sudden change of direction.

How does one catch a bird?

            caught it, with words, for Christ’s sake (13)

While Dahlen may not share Hopkins’s quite literal sense that the birds and all the world are “for Christ’s sake,” she manages to suggest the possibility of spiritual presence, a thisness that humans may only approach, or hang onto, in words, in language.


second printing A Reading: Birds, by Beverly Dahlen, May 2011

Finally as much as about birds, A Reading: Birds is about us, the humans, who are often stuck outside.

we voyeurs peeking
through our  glasses
there           naming
them       collecting
them with lists  and
cameras  the   birds
their  exotic  rituals (12)

Yet collecting them in lists is not getting there, to the heart of the matter, to the meadow of first permission (as Robert Duncan, another great California poet who invokes childhood memories, might have it). We need all our words, all our imaginings, to get there. We need humility in the face of the natural world. We need to listen, as to the mourning dove.

Softly, thinking of its story,
why does it mourn. Listening. (17)

An endnote to the book presents a story told by the Yurok people of northwestern California, about how the mourning dove came to have its particular call. This tale too is an imagining that catches the bird in its words.

In writing about the work of Beverly Dahlen, I think too, as with observing the birds, I should remain quiet, reading and listening. She is a marvel to apprehend, in all her words. Why?

because they sing
because they fly

because (14)