BIRDS IN THE HAND
Fiction and Poetry about Birds
Kent and Dylan Nelson
North Point Press
Hardcover, 374 pages, $24
Previously published in Bloomsbury Review
novel Land That Moves, Land That Stands Still has brought some
long-deserved recognition to Kent Nelson.
Now, as a fine follow up, Kent and his daughter Dylan have compiled an
anthology of fiction and poetry, Birds in the Hand: Fiction and Poetry about Birds. The back flap includes a snapshot of a
What did the bird mean? It was the fulfillment of a quest, a shared experience with my brother and my father, an evocation of wildness and solitude. As a threatened species, the owl was a quiet rebuke and a reminder that we are all endangered. And it was, simply, magnificent to see. These are only partial answers. What does any bird mean, within a moment s experience or the sweep of life?
Her father provides part of the answer. He refers to a character in one of his novels who explains why he took a friend to see a Yellow Rail: because birds on in me. They are in my blood like a language. They were what I first knew how to love.
The nature of the poems and stories in this anthology reveal the editors passions for their subject. Consider this from Li-Young Lee s Praise Them.
The birds don t alter space.
They reveal it. The sky
never fills with any
leftover flying. They leave
nothing to trace. It is our own
in chill air. Be glad.
Many well-known authors find a place here, but some of the finest work is by those lesser known. Take David Waggoner s story The Bird Watcher which juxtaposes the solitude sought by a birder in the woods with the wild risk of a hang-glider skimming the trees overhead. Waggoner works the necessary arc of the story but also says much about the simple fact of being:
He watched birds, all right, but the most intense pleasure came just from being somewhere natural. He didn t need anything as grand as whole landscape: a small clearing in the woods could do it or a bend in a creek or a place like this small, rain-fed, permanently shaded swamp, where he could look and learn and renew a powerful and healing sense of belonging momentarily to a dependable order. He didn t meditate. His mind went nowhere else in time, didn t even go into itself. It was an intimate joining with the Here and Now, as reassuring as love, as valuable and memorable, though not as long-lasting. And he was afraid of giving these sometimes prolonged moments any kind of important name for fear they d stop happening.
If such moments provide transient healing
for the vicissitudes of life, Waggoner shows it doesn t take long for tragedy
to quickly intrude again. In this vein
there is also Sheri Joseph s brilliant story The Elixir about a mother s
nursing a wounded hummingbird with the magic of a spoonful of sugar small but
welcome solace after facing down the inability to heal her prodigal daughter s
terminal tuberculosis. Such symbolic
connections continue in Richard Wilbur s poem The Writer, in which he compares
his daughter s difficulty in tapping out a story on a typewriter to a starling
trapped in the same room, unable to find, for the longest time, the window they
opened for it. William Archilla s fine
poem Bird evokes the geography of
If these writers display a form of natural realism, with words as clear as spring water, then another kind of clarity comes from stories more fantastic, such as Jealous Husband Returns in Form of a Parrot, in which Robert Olen Butler spins off Kafke s famous story about waking up as a cockroach. Similarly, in Flight, John L Heureux depicts a priest in love whose pain grows into a knot on his side, rupturing into a blackbird. And in Emory Bear Hands Birds, Barry Lopez tells the tale of a Native American in prison who teaches other inmates to let wildlife into their souls, and who become birds to escape by flying away.
In a volume compiled by devoted birders, the sole hunting story is a window into the soul of both hunter and hunted. By Jim Harrison, it s an excerpt from his early novel Farmer, where the protagonist Joseph shoots a woodcock and finds it wounded and fluttering in tall grass. When he catches it in his hands, the bird twists its head around, staring directly at Joseph with a glint of the morning sun shining off its retinas. Unable to return the bird s gaze, Joseph shuts his eyes before he snaps the bird s neck. Trembling, he sits down:
How could he become so nervous after thirty years of hunting? He had never looked into a bird s eyes before and it had at least temporarily unnerved him. He tried to ignore how nearly human the eyes looked, but he couldn t rid his mind totally of the idea: eyes are what we hold most in common in terms of similarity to other beasst. He always cringed when he hooked a fish in the eye. When they slaughtered both cattle and pigs the eyes stayed open in death. But it was more than that: the woodcock was warm, palpable, it quivered, and its eyes did not blink under his gaze.
What Kent and Dylan Nelson have accomplished in this anthology is a testimony to the ongoing mystery of birds, the mystery of the human heart.