The Persistent Metaphor of Birds
April 27, 2022 § 15 Comments
By Paula J. Lambert
For so long, I swore I didn’t know where the birds in my writing had come from. Their bones, beaks, feathers—so many kinds of feathers. The feet, toes, talons. Every odd, intricate detail of a bird’s anatomy would turn itself into a poem or appear in an essay—eventually, hundreds of pages. They keep coming.
I’m not a birder. I’m no ornithologist. When I finally remembered the birds in my grandfather’s yard, it seemed to explain…something. All those flashes of color: blue birds, red, golden-yellow. Pepe’s back yard was a pine forest, and the tables next to the webbed lawn chairs we sat on perfect stumps, just right for sweating cans of beer and Tupperware cups of Kool-Aid. Every tree had a bird house—some had two or three. I loved listening to the grownups talk and laugh through those spring and summer days, the birds around us so plentiful that, except for those flashes of color and the occasional drum of the woodpeckers’ hammer, they barely registered at all.
It was a year before I thought of the full bird skeleton I kept in a cigar box on the bottom shelf of my studio. I’d found it in the soft spring soil off the front porch just after I’d married into my husband’s family. I thought I’d write about it, that beautiful, nearly naked bird, one slim dark feather refusing to detach from its former wing. It seemed to have offered itself as a gift. I’d add it to a collage somehow, I thought—an assemblage. For a while, I tried taking photographs.
Eventually I remembered the shore-bird skull I’d found in Rockport, five or six years before I met my husband, it’s slinky cervical vertebrae still attached. We were there for a sibling reunion, and my oldest sister, horrified when I lifted it off the rocks, pronounced it filthy. She left me on the beach alone when I refused to drop it, trying to figure out how to carry it home.
Then there was the half-skull—no lower beak—I’d found at the racetrack in Gainesville, Florida. Or someone had. Who? I was still working as a sign painter then. It sat perfectly on the top of the guardrail where I’d left off painting Winston and Budweiser logos the day before. My boss, Nancy, working with me at the track that day, turned it over and over in her hands and held it up to the sky so sunlight shone through the sockets. All I wanted was to get back to work. She took it home in her kit.
I’m not sure what took me so long to see all this as a sequence, a bread-crumb trail, instead of just randomly firing synapses pinging one bird memory or another over the course of how many years, never explaining or even suggesting anything at all, not even the time I found that delicate-soft, newly dead thrush on the side of the road in Amherst, Virginia. I was in residence at VCCA, working my way through a painfully difficult personal essay. I studied the bird carefully and sent a photo to a friend I knew could narrow down the species: hermit thrush. I stared and stared at it trying to understand how something so perfect could just be…dead. And why, in spite of its death, so many other birds sang sweetly nonchalant in the trees around it. I wove that hermit thrush into the essay I was working on and, when I studied the photo for details, realized it wasn’t the only dead bird pic in my phone. There were actually quite a few. Thumbing through them, I tried to reassure myself that wasn’t weird: creatives do this kind of thing, right?
The photos might be what led me to remembering the first dead bird of my life—raggedy, stiff—the one my then-best-friend insisted we hold a funeral for, dropping to her knees and pulling me down beside her. All those synapses fired at once, and I saw the pattern of augury that had set itself before me all my life. Writers have always been drawn to birds, symbol of the spirit, connection between earth and sky. When a bird is dead, diseased, torn asunder? Surely there are days we feel that metaphor, too. Surely it’s important to write our way through it—to find the words that lead our spirit back to soaring.
Sometimes the obvious sails straight over your head. But those seemingly random, suddenly firing synapses are the very thing that has always defined my writing process—the poems for sure and now, I’m beginning to realize, the prose I’ve come back to, too. I follow what interests me, obsessively maybe, until it links lightning-fast to two or three or four other things and I write it all down. I can’t explain how the connections suddenly make sense in my head, all of them at once. But more often than not, when I write it down and set my words loose in the world, they find their way to someone who needs to see them, someone who couldn’t—or wouldn’t—have made the connections on their own.
Paula J. Lambert has authored several collections of poetry including The Ghost of Every Feathered Thing (FutureCycle Press 2022). Recipient of PEN America’s L’Engle-Rahman Prize for Mentorship, her poetry and prose has been supported by the Ohio Arts Council and the Greater Columbus Arts Council. She has twice been in residence at Virginia Center for Creative Arts. Lambert owns Full/Crescent Press, a small publisher of poetry books and broadsides specializing in hand-stitched, art-quality chapbooks. Through the press, she has founded and supported numerous public readings that support the intersection of poetry and science.