The Birds Are Alright: A Review of Thalia Field’s ‘Bird Lovers, Backyard’
Thalia Field’s newest work, the beautiful and dense Bird Lovers, Backyard opens with a question and a timestamp. What is it exactly to perform philosophy? It’s 8:31 AM, an early start.
A group has gathered in a food court, glad for coffee though it’s stale and watered down. They’re the only team to show for an open competition (they call it a “thinking contest,” they call themselves “non-professional thinkers”) meant to stir up new ideas in the struggle against some trespassing birds, the “odd, oily pigeons and pearly ones with a bright look” that roost high in the rafters. They arrive early and stay late into the evening, eager and heartfelt but wrong for the task. At one point they do seem to get to it, considering poisons and guns, nets and oversized rakes, but it never feels like more than a prosaic exercise in possibility. They know that the real challenges are somewhat more fraught. The book that follows is a long prose-y poem that weaves through so much; science, storytelling, memory, analogy, animal behavior, community, adaptation, diversity, form, language, extinction, power and politics. When, a day’s-work later, the group concludes with the hopeful “we think the pigeons will be able to continue,” they’ve arrived at something rich and radical, something worthy of the prize money we know they’ll never see.
The book, like the birds, can feel odd and oily, and this is so much of its beauty. For a slim volume Bird Lovers, Backyard is expansive. It’s for swimming in, which is what you say when a work is prodigious but kind. It reads like a fieldbook for how we narrate ourselves in the natural world—one that’s recounted in a strange mash of historical and personal anecdote. Storytelling becomes a kind of scientific method for trying out truth, and in Field’s control it can be exhilarating. Bird Lovers is largely a hybrid text about hybrid-ness. It’s an ethical appeal on behalf of the form. The book wants to crossbreed and degenerate. For Field, literature ought to live in the world the way the biological so easily does. It should be a compelling mess, a thing made up of past and place. The mixing is where it first gets interesting.
Bird Lovers, Backyard is divided into nine main parts, with 5 through 8 comprising the lengthy A WEEDY SONATA that makes up about half the text. While each section stands distinct, with its own voice, form and theme, there’s a kind of accrual of concerns, a language and mounting sympathy passed down through the stories so that each coming chapter shows a muddled likeness of its predecessor.
In the book’s third part, The Crime has a Name, the narrator is a dusky seaside sparrow (how perfect are those two adjectives of in-betweenness?). With the expansion of the nearby Kennedy Space Center, the fragile marshland is drained and crossed with highways. Worse for the sparrows, it seems, the place is changed and no longer recognizable to memory. These are sparrows that know memory.
For the moment Aluminum Green—he calls himself a “marsh-loving bird in an age of space”—represents one of six remaining birds, all brothers and without mating prospects. The last female sparrow was sighted decades earlier and extinction of the breed is certain, if not already a functional truth—“is a species just something that can still make something of itself?” he asks. As one by one the brothers die off (they’re held now in the captive breeding program at Disney World), there’s discussion on the implications of backcrossing, mating the dusky sparrows with the Scott’s sparrow, a closely related subspecies. It would give a hybrid, a new form. It would mean the continuance, in some varied way, of the breed. Scientists elect instead to keep a “pure race,” effectively leaving them to die out, and of course they do.
It’s this frightening phrase—pure race—that emerges later, in the first section of A WOODY SONATA, when Nazi-sympathizer, Nietzsche-reader and Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz studies and selectively breeds the greylag goose. It’s a strike against “degeneration” but also a lock-down on all the variety of forms that make a thing suited to the world. It’s dangerous thinking. It can lead, we know, to Auschwitz.
And yet, despite his approaching death (with it will come the extinction of the species), Aluminum Green wheels his way through language. With a flash of cross-species understanding he builds something like an analogy, the reaching comparison at the heart of this book. Bird Lovers is in a basic way a poem about analogy as the world-enlarging embrace that sees similarity when it can. With a tinge of sorrow the sparrow feels a kinship for the spacemen (“bouncy astronauts”) who’ve destroyed him. Remaindered by extinction, but still. He feels the weight of his species brought to the cusp of something profound and looks to the words of Alan Bean, Apollo 12, to find a sort of solace: “When you land on the moon and you stop and you get out, nobody’s out there, this little limb and the two of you and you’re it on this whole big place, and that’s a weird feeling. It’s a weird feeling to be two people and that’s it.”
With birds, then, the divide is not so huge. Pigeons enter our buildings and ride our subways with eerie ease. As Field us: they seem to know our tricks. This is what a confrontation with an edge species looks like, this breed that begs overlap and infringes on our humanness. It’s convincing. They lament the past, even as it overtakes them—and what more human than that? It’s no surprise then that the book is worried with imagery of boundaries and their breeching. There’s a sieged Paris of 1871 crossed outwards by carrier pigeons; manned rockets piercing the flats of Cape Canaveral and then into the atmosphere itself; an atomic blast in the shallows of Bikini Atoll; a skyscraper rising above the food court—again and again these sites of intersecting axes, the vertical crossing the horizontal. History has no linearity in this telling; it’s a vast swarming thing we perform to a narrative tune. Intersection is the possibility of alternative perspectives, a valve in time that could flip the other way. It’s a new site to understand from, a birding platform maybe, and a vantage place to stop and really look.
What follows is a fuller joining as Field brings the book into a three-dimensional landscape. Part Four, Parting, is a split story told across three columns. Down the left-hand margin are poetic meanderings headed by bracketed words, “/Sand/,” “/Seaweeds/,” “/Ocean/,” “/Glacier/,” “/Starfish/,” “/Sea turtles/,” and so on, each followed by a partial definition that captures a generous context more than anything definitive. Aligned to the right-hand margin, generations of young girls tirelessly work the beach with a rake. The paragraphs alternate back and forth, the natural world and the human experience, sealing together like the teeth of a zipper. The girls learn to read the contours of the sand and feel its punctuation carried through the wooden handle. They sight-read the thick, amassing detritus. The trash from the sea—“broken shell fragments and corals, calcite minerals and the excrement of crustaceans, echinoderms”—collides with trash of the earth—“used firecracker wrapper, unraveled cardboard tubes, sticks, gray and white paper cups.” We seem to be at some boundary line where things open up, and the empathetic self finds its place in a world of language. The girl with the rake steps back into the overlooking cemetery (“why do cemeteries give good views?” she asks), takes in the big mix, and the barrier islands crumble into the sea. It cooks down to a question of how we understand ourselves in relation to the world, and how we talk about ourselves thinking through it. Live a life that doubles as a poem, Field seems to say, overspilling and hybrid and jagged and beautiful.
There’s a wonderful sequence on the first page of Bird Lovers that carries through the book, a kind of counter-balance of a myth redacted:
Instead of narrative build-up, what if we have Icarus crawling right into the water—wings on, indifferent to flight—skipping past the story part to lie down in the ending?
What about ten thousand Icaruses crawling into the water, wings untested?
What about a million—convinced just to skip the whole drama, wade in and float there—wet, sinking, unmoved by the sun
It’s the story-part that’s the part that counts. Even if it will end badly later, Field says, we can’t just lie down now.
Art by Alison Kuo.
Follow us on twitter@thefastertimes
- 1 Amanda Bynes’s Behavior Revealed to Be Elaborate PSA
- 2 Obama Horrified by the Grammar in Our Emails
- 3 Incidental Boob Graze Redeems Trust Fall Exercise
- 4 Monster Fart Prompting Management to Rethink “Open Office”
- 5 NSA Demanded Access To Un-Filtered Instagram Photos
- 6 Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson Ambushed By Alan ‘The Paper’ Rubinstein
- 7 Local Bully: Gay Boy Scouts a Dream Come True
- 8 ‘Licensed to Kim Jong Il’ Records 27th Straight Year Atop N. Korean Charts
- 9 ‘A/S/L’ Most Asked Question At Kaplan Online University Reunion
- 10 Stanley Cup Final One Blowout Away From “Boston Massacre” Headline Outrage