BIRD-BOOK by JESSICA SMITHSTEVEN FAMA Reviews
bird-book by Jessica Smith
(detumescence e-book, 2006 [second expanded edition])
“The Brain– ” Emily Dickinson wrote, “is wider than the Sky.” Jessica Smith’s bird-book shows how this can be. Smith’s way of arranging poems, her use of word fragments and individual letters, and her commitment to unfixed meaning expand--really stretch--the mind.
The twenty-two poems of bird-book are very short (50 words or less) and printed one to a page. They have neither stanzas or even full lines. Instead, the poems are made of short phrases, single words, word fragments, and individual letters, which Smith places all over each of her almost square pages. Text is as likely to be found near the right as to the left margin, the bottom as to the top, or anywhere else on the page. There is plenty of white (blank space) in between the printed matter.
It is a most uncommon look for poetry. Based just on appearance, each poem might be called a kind of miniature minimalist work of abstract art, with words and their constituent parts (fragments and letters) the marks used by the poet-artist. In this regard, Smith has a knack for laying out her poem-works. The designs are smart and varied. Each poem appears balanced, but not obviously so. The poems seem anchored to the page, yet the dominating impression is of wide-openness.
The poems’ wide-open arrangements also create uncommon opportunities for reading. The poems can be read in the established (for English) left-to-right, top-to-bottom manner. But even though each poem’s title is located in a conventional spot (the upper left corner), it is difficult to read in the typical manner. Because there are no traditional lines, and lots of blank space between the words, there are plenty of options about what “comes next,” and choices inevitably must be made.
In fact, Smith uses several features to entice a reader to move around the page. Many poems align words or phrases in one or more tightly or loosely defined vertical columns, which draw attention because of their distinctive shape and volume. Sometimes words attract the eye simply because they are clustered together, even when not structurally organized. On the other hand, a word, phrase, or letter sometimes stands out because it is isolated on the page, surrounded by blank space. Finally, Smith scatters individual letters and word fragments, which the reader must try to fit together into complete words, and sometimes that requires looking for the matching letters or pieces elsewhere on the page.
Most of bird-book’s poems have all these attention-drawing features, and because of them and the poems’ wide-open arrangements it quickly becomes almost natural to jump around the page. It’s definitely different, peculiar even, but why not? Maybe a reader should hover and flit about the page, the eyes hummingbirds to the nectar-blossoms of language. Besides, what self-respecting reader wouldn’t enjoy exploring and trying different alternatives when the author has worked hard to provide just such opportunities? Repeat readings of bird-book are essentially de rigueur given the multiple possible paths through each poem, and because most of the poems are hard, in the sense of not revealing themselves immediately. Because the poems’ words, phrases, etc. can be ordered differently during re-readings, associations and meaning can vary as juxtapositions and sequencing shift. When subsequent readings are different than those that came before, and the memories of the earlier readings layer atop and mix with each other, the poems become richer and more textured.
I think the way the poems are arranged, constituted, viewed, read, and considered reflect Smith’s interests in the workings of our perception and memory. Although these meta-themes are mostly unstated, I believe her poems, and how we read them, are meant to mirror the fragmented, non-linear, random, mutable, subjective and sometimes frustrating ways in which we apprehend and remember. It’s a very convincing use of form and process to underscore a substantive truth.
Smith of course has more specific themes. As the book’s title suggests, many poems in some way concern birds. Many of these present bits of ornithological detail and a few include very brief representations of bird calls (Smith lists birding references as source material). One or two poems (such as the first poem, hero/n) can be read as a relatively straightforward minimalist-cubist lyrics depicting a bird. However, these poems are the exceptions; most are neither direct portraits nor simple paeans.
In fact, many poems include catastrophic images of ecological disasters. Smith also cites Silent Spring as a source, and on the acknowledgments page specially thanks that landmark environmentalism book’s author, Rachel Carson, stating, “without her bird-watching might be a rather dull and hopeless activity.” Among the phrases one comes across in the poems are “d/ead lake,” “and no bird sings,” “loss of ability to fly, paralysis, convulsions,” “sterilized,” “grotesque hybrids,” “driven out, poisoned,” and “hideous wings.” These might be historical facts, nightmares narrowly avoided, or prophecies to be feared. However taken, the images are very disturbing. They create a powerful tension when read with the bird-details which, generally speaking, evoke the beauty of nature.
One of my favorite poems in bird-book is “das lied von der erde” (Smith italicizes and lower cases all titles). The poem among other things concerns springtails, the common name for a group of “primitive wingless insects” (Smith’s phrase) which create topsoil by digesting fragments of soil and litter flora and fungi. The poem commemorates the “creative magic” these bugs work and the “minute / ceaseless / cycles” and “constant change” of which they are an essential part.
At almost the very center of the poem Smith places the phrase, “macerate chomp chomp” (italics in original). I find this almost off-the-wall imagining of the insects at work both humorous and persuasive. Persuasive especially because the springtails’ making of something (in their case, topsoil) by taking in and re-arranging bits and pieces of other things serves as a highly unusual but totally apt metaphor for the work of both the poet and her reader. Give Smith credit here for getting down in the dirt and charmingly buggy to describe what both parties to her book actually do in “the classic caress of author and reader,” as William Carlos Williams termed it in Spring & All. Of course, the making of something from bits and fragments of other things might also describe how we interpret and remember what we experience in general.
Smith in das lied von der erde does more than just commemorate the insect-aided eco-cycle or use that process as a metaphor. In the midst of the words and phrases concerning the insects, Smith drops a simple interrogatory -- “are?”– that -- as a present tense form for the verb “to be” – raises the question of existence. More specifically, given the context in which it appears, the poem’s interrogatory raises the question of our transience amidst the “ceaseless cycles” of nature described in the poem and the possibility that the insects or the cycles of nature might themselves vanish. I love how just a single word and punctuation mark do the heavy lifting of raising these fundamental concerns, and how the verb tense delivers the here and now into the poem. It couldn’t be more subtle or effective.
And then there’s the poem’s title. The translation from the German is “The Song of the Earth,” and that’s a fitting name for a poem about soil biota. But das Lied von der Erde is also a song-symphony by Mahler. It is a magnificent piece, with magnificent themes based on Chinese poems that chiefly concern, as scholar Michael Kennedy writes, “the beauties of nature being renewed every year even though men and women could enjoy them for only a comparatively brief span.” I see similarities here between Mahler’s and Smith’s themes. Smith’s use of the title also means that in my imagination Mahler’s work, especially its long final movement with its mostly spare sometimes near-silent music (also a kind of analog to Smith’s use of blank space), serves as a soundtrack to the poem. I hear the music when I read the poem, and I can’t get either out of my head.
I also can’t get out of my head how Smith in almost every one of bird-book’s poems breaks up one or more words into their most basic parts–individual letters or fragments of two or three letters–then scatters those letters or fragments about the page. It’s up to the reader to figure out what the individual letters spell.
Some of the scrambled words are relatively easy to make out, mostly because the letters that fit together are near each other on the page or have an obvious lexical relationship. In das lied von der erde, for example, the diphthong “th” stands alone but just a bit further down the page the fragment “read-” is seen, and the two fragments (even with stand-alone meaning of “read”) are easily joined together. The resulting “thread-” is then connected to “like,” found on an almost directly across the page, to complete compound word “thread-like.”
However, some of the scattered letters are a lot harder, even for those with an aptitude for making words in Scrabble® or solving the newspaper game Jumble®. In these harder cases, the letters seem to be placed just about anywhere on the page and the solutions aren’t immediately apparent. Deciphering the words requires trying different combinations or possibilities.
In certain poems it is damn near impossible to assemble the letters into words. I couldn’t piece together the scattered letters in japanese beetle, water skeleton, silence any song, and kites. Frustrated, I wrote Smith, asking if the letters really formed words. She replied that they did, but that “it isn’t necessary to put them back together.” I like that she accepts that some readers, similar to “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men,” won’t be able to put the words together again. I’m guessing Smith accepts this in part because she knows that our existence has a certain core Humpty-ness, that try as we might there will always be bits and fragments that don’t cohere into an identifiable or unified whole.
Smith’s scrambled letters, particularly the hard or impossible ones, invigorate all the language of her poems. In trying put together the scattered letters, I found myself looking very closely at bird-book’s complete words, looking for clues or analogs that might help me solve the puzzles. Everything -- roots, prefixes, suffixes, diphthongs, vowel combinations and even individual letters -- was torn apart and put back together. It was fascinating to see exactly how each complete word came together from its particular cluster of letters. These complete words, simply because they worked, became wonders of nature. In this way, Smith’s scrambled letter technique proves that words, even the most basic articles and prepositions, are minor miracles. This may be her neatest trick of all.
Smith’s poems, I think it fair to say, have a lexical and rhetorical austerity that is probably deliberate. I think Smith recognizes that a more vigorous vocabulary, or more extensive use of poetic “devices” could easily come off as overdone in poems so short and so unusually placed about the page. Plus, I believe Smith’s poem’s reflect actual memories, ans so the words used may simply be those that actually were remembered. I can’t second-guess her assumed aesthetic decisions and/or laudable honesty on these matters.
Yet perhaps a bit more is possible. The book’s few super-charged phrases (“crypt-throated” in water skeleton and “thumb-sucking knowledge” in kingfisher, for example) show that when she wants Smith can adventure in language’s more flamboyant realms. Similarly, the repetition all over the page in kingfisher of the words “blue” and “green” -- which although simple creates a convincing spotlighted effect, as if in a theater -- and the use of consonance in a number of other poems, show that she knows her way around the poet’s toolbox. Although bird-book creates plenty of possibilities just as it is, I’d love to experience the poetic synergy should Smith choose to upgrade the intensity of words and effects while continuing her remarkable way of arranging words and scattering letters.
Steven Fama lives in San Francisco and recently became eligible to join AARP. He reads lots and lots of poetry.