“Bird” is the word in this superb collection of verse.
Veteran author Crawford (The Names of Birds, 2011, etc.) opens one of the poems in this fine new volume with a quote from Emily Dickinson: “One note from / one bird / Is better than / a million words.” He seems to have gotten her message wrong, though, because this collection is made up of thousands of words about birds. Essentially, every piece refers at least once to our feathered friends, and in the hands of a lesser poet, such a project would be either quixotic or uninspired. In Crawford’s, however, it’s brilliant—a weird high-wire act in which each avian allusion becomes more difficult to pull off, and all the more impressive when it works. More often than not, his narrators’ comments on birds set up reflections on other, deeper themes, such as attraction to beauty; thus, in “Eden,” a hummingbird drawn to nectar becomes a personal symbol: “I was reminded of myself, / drunk the way I am on beauty. / When there’s sugar inside, / you keep trying.” Then, in “Little Man on Your Shoulder,” the song of unseen birds leads the speaker to ponder an Asian image of mortality: “In Korea where I once lived, / the monks liked to joke / about our coming and going. / It’s a little man on your shoulder, / they’d say, he’s always there / gently niggling you / about your impermanence.” At other times, though, a bird is just a bird, as in “What’s Certain”: “The Pinyon Jay / is always in charge. / He comes down hard / but seems to own / whatever he lands on / with several screeches / to make the point.” As the poet deftly links thoughts on nature, death, ecology, and religion, he may remind readers of the great Gary Snyder, although Crawford’s verse is a bit more approachable. Early on, he writes that “good art / is what you can get away with.” If that’s true, he can get away with just about anything.
A sweet song from an uncaged poetic talent.