The Bones of Winter Birds
by Ann Fisher-Wirth
(Terrapin Books, 2019, 87 pp. $16)
Before even opening Ann Fisher-Wirth’s collection, I am confronted by a solitary magpie, perching on a wattle fence gate, in brilliant blue winter tones. “One for sorrow,” as the nursery rhyme goes. Impressionism enthusiasts will also immediately recognise this as Monet’s ‘The Magpie’, which is reflected in the poem ‘We Came Home over the Snowy Fields for Christmas’ with eerie precision:
‘We watched a magpie on a stile,
the sun sheen on its wings,
the light like diamonds in the snow’ (p. 58)
This peaceful scene summarises the eighty-one pages of the collection, but as a reader, I am now seeking the warm embrace of a place where I can thaw my toes, and sure enough, I am rewarded. The line ‘[t]hen it will come the new’ (p. 7) at the end of the first poem, ‘October: A Gigan’ bypasses winter altogether with the promise of spring, but keeping the latter at the forefront is important, as nature uses this time to prepare for its revival, the emergence of buds and blades being the result of a long, complex and mainly hidden process. The placement of this poem at the very beginning allows both reader and writer to ‘remember the fine-tipped leaves, the quiet October air.’ (p.7) This echoes the introductory poem of Dream Cabinet3, ‘Slow Rain, October’ which ends with the ‘[t]hree white roses on the Welsh cabinet’ that ‘open further, ripen, slacken, begin to bruise’3. It is not the word ‘October’ nor the placement of these two pieces alone which brings them together, it is the impermanence of the natural, which is translated into that of the carnal; the body grows tired and enters a spiritual hibernation, it yearns for ‘sleep, and sleep, and sleep’3. The two pieces offer the shelter that is yearned for, as both are poems of the indoors. The three roses are reflected in The Bones of Winter Birds as the three sisters, Ann, her younger sister Jennifer, and their elder sister Joan, their close bond standing at its forefront.
Five parts, or five bones comprise the skeleton of Fisher-Wirth’s collection, but many more feathers make up its strata: prayer and meditation, mourning and memory, fine art and literature, culture and architecture, the body and the outer body. Fisher-Wirth superimposes her feelings on the landscape of Mississippi, the weather and the wildlife rendering it as an unknown, as well as darting off to foreign places such as France and Italy, and also other US states such as California. From the initial poem, ‘October: A Gigan’, particular attention is paid to breathing, the last couplet beginning with ‘[b]reathe, and remember the fine-tipped leaves/ the quiet October air’ (p. 7); this allows Fisher-Wirth to enter a yogic meditative state in which she can tackle life, mothering, and loss. The emphasis on breath recurs throughout the collection, in poems such as ‘Yoga Nidra’ (p. 11), ‘Yugen’ (p. 29), ‘January 28’ (p. 39), and ‘Sister’ (p. 42). Linked to the five-part structure of the collection, this number plays an important part in yogic belief, as it is linked to the 5th chakra which is situated in the throat, thus becoming a metaphor for speech and poetic expression. It is also associated with the colour blue, which strikes the reader from the very beginning of The Bones of Winter Birds, by being an important part of Monet’s experimental chromatics on the cover in his Magpie painting. The light creates blue shadows on the fallen snow. The scene is mirrored into the poem ‘We Came Home over the Snowy Fields for Christmas’ (p. 58), as illustrated in the previous paragraph. A ‘magpie on a stile’ (p. 58) and a magpie on a wattle fence gate are not the same, but the function of both is to allow passing, in this case both a physical and a spiritual one. Permitting words and feelings to flow like energy through the body is a crucial part of the poetic meditation which occurs in Fisher-Wirth’s work. As a yoga practitioner herself, none of these inclusions and allusions is accidental, as she states that yoga allows her ‘to experience peace and a growing sense of compassion for all things.’4 According to the poet ‘one bird signifies danger’ (p. 58), an ill omen which ties in with general beliefs of sightings of single magpies. There is also a warning of bad weather in the poem ‘Why Not Left in Peace?’ where we find out that ‘[i]t might snow’ (p. 36), and it does. Fisher-Wirth calibrates her body according to the seasons; the collection abounds in temporal markers, and they serve as triggers for memories, some more painful than others. For instance, in the opening of the poem ‘Yahrzeit’, ‘[t]he sun shone bright today/ as it shone the day you died’ (p. 44). Loss, however difficult it may be to cope with, is an inevitable and natural part of life. And nature experiences a rebirth with each coming spring, ‘the sap-rife glory does not stop for grief’ (p. 31). Loss, meditation, and Buddhist philosophy come together in the poem ‘These Things’, this amalgam being linked to the metaphor of Indra’s net, which to Fisher-Wirth represents ‘an ecological metaphor for interrelatedness and connectedness for the universe as a multiple series of systems rather than a hierarchical structure’5. This connectedness echoes through the entire collection, the interweaving of the human and the non-human playing a crucial part in ‘controlling the spirit/ in order to attain harmony’ (p. 73).
This yogic isolation sharpens the senses and opens memories, the majority of which can be grouped into the themes of mothering / being mothered, sisterhood, the bond shared by women, nurturing, and caring. Fisher-Wirth is herself a mother, a stepmother, a daughter, a younger sister, and an older sister, being able to explore in-depth all these complex relationships between women. This is linked to the title and main metaphor in this collection in the poem ‘In That Kitchen (She Speaks to Herself)’, where the bones of winter birds are boiled in a soup by ‘mothers [who] cooked the death of things’ (p.16). This warm and hearty meal served in a sheltered space, might initially come across as a remedy, comfort food or much needed nourishment; however, it contains the toxic elements that foreshadow the catastrophic things that will happen to the planet if humanity will not change its ways. There is also a crucial word which cannot slip by unacknowledged: ‘death’; this is not just the loss of a loved one, but can also translate into the broader sphere as environmental destruction, a more accentuated version of our collapsing natural environs than the bare and bleak ones generated by winter. This is reminiscent of the Carsonian nightmare portrayed in ‘Silent Spring’1, the birds present in Fisher-Wirth’s collection coming primarily through memory, and not necessarily physical birds in the present landscape. The memory of their songs becomes the background tune of environmental destruction, which is highlighted in the poem ‘Everything I Sculpted’:
‘A gaunt grove
of trees, covered with lichen
and furred mosses, with which birds
make their nests,
and the birds themselves,
that sing the birth and death of worlds.’ (p. 63)
The avian presence in The Bones of Winter Birds dominates from the very beginning on the cover and in the title, but a flock of birds of all kinds flies through the lines of almost all of the poems; some are resident to the areas where they appear, whilst some are migratory. The naming of the birds is inconsistent, ‘crows slice across the morning’ (p.7), ‘the starved owl hovers over mud and scanty snow’ (p.12), ‘a cardinal […]/ this blood-bright bird/ among the icy leaves’ (p. 13), ‘crows over the scorched grasses’ (p.17), ‘quail nest in the darkness’ (p.18), ‘redwing blackbirds sang from the fence posts in Boone County’ (p.37), a button compared to ‘a nest with a robin’s egg’ (p.45), ‘warblers trill outside’ (p.71), etc. The birds add to the dynamics of a stilled landscape. The named birds represent the known, the visceral, the identifiable; they fit into particular categories according to their species, with documented migratory patterns (if applicable), and particular nesting habits. In the poem ‘Prayer’, ‘the birds are going crazy with melody’ (p. 10), whilst in ‘Solstice’ the sun turns into an unimaginable ‘blood-bright bird’ (p. 13), another ill omen; this gives them the freedom of their identities, through the disassociation from the names given to them by the human. The unnamed birds belong to the spiritual, the idealistic, the experimental. The human body is related to them not where it is situated, but where it wants to be. This realm promises freedom, but comes with constraints and sacrifice of its own.
The motif of looking out the window is centred on the indoor / outdoor dichotomy in which the familiar and the near expand into the global, highlighting the fact that the effects of human-induced climate catastrophe are happening near and far. ‘The forests are falling. Toxic sludge slows down the rivers, toxic smoke drifts through the air’ (p.16), ‘[r]ising oceans, melting icecaps, neonics, the endless wars’ (p.11), seem to be taking place elsewhere, out of reach, but in truth and looking at it through the perspective of Indra’s net, these ecocatastrophies and changes in the climate are unleashing chains of events which will inevitably make their way into the sheltered room where a character is looking out the window, feeling safe and sheltered. Fisher-Wirth’s poems reach out to other places, look out at the world, and by doing so, bring them into the spotlight, into focus. The birds are also part of that world, for now, in the poem ‘The Witness’ Fisher-Wirth remembers that she ‘loved the chittering of the birds, / the slow glide of light across [her] window’ (p. 60). The Mississippi winter branches out, the white carpeted areas become inter-connected on an obvious Indra’s net. In the poem ‘Lace’, the poet’s parents are on a night train travelling ‘deep/ and deeper into the mountains’, and her dad ‘turns his head toward the window / to watch snow fall, clean and silent, through the darkness.’ (p. 22) This inter-connectedness works on a temporal, physical and spiritual level. It echoes into present times, and highlights the current state of our environs, Fisher-Wirth being well-aware of these and stating that ‘[e]nvironmentally we live in a time of unparalleled crisis’4
Looking out the window from a sheltered space such as a room or a train carriage can be a complex emotional experience, constantly triggering the concept of ‘home’ versus ‘the elsewhere’. The window becomes a place of observation and contemplation of the temporal and atemporal world, threatened by a ‘sly wind’ which ‘hisses at the windowsill’ (p. 73). In the poem ‘Shelterhouse’, she ‘wanted to move further and further into it’ (p. 56) whilst the cold becomes visceral, ‘flesh-ice’ which ‘she worshiped and adored’ (p. 56). The temporal world is rooted in the season and the senses, while the atemporal one is a world of memory, spiritual and universal inter-connectedness. Fisher-Wirth becomes the physical and spiritual traveller who gives voice and lyric accompaniment to the numerous birds encountered on this journey. The importance of the window as motif reappears: the metaphor is also found in other parts of Fisher-Wirth’s work, most notably in the collection Blue Window2, and it compels the reader and writer to look, observation being of crucial importance to translating the world into verse.
The Bones of Winter Birds is a spiritual hibernation, a Yoga Nidra from which neither readers nor writer ‘want to wake’ (p. 11). During this sleep, Fisher-Wirth reflects on loss and memory, the arts and culture, the body and the outer body, and the bonds shared by women, with a close awareness of the season and her environs. As I close this book, I am faced again with Monet’s solitary magpie. I cannot help but think that elsewhere a female sits on a clutch of perfectly camouflaged eggs, whilst the male is on the lookout for food, as is their custom during nesting season, despite the morning frosts, the lamb’s snow. This thought gives me comfort.
1 Rachel Carson, Silent Spring. ed. by Edward Shackleton Shackleton, Julian Huxley and Linda J. Lear (London: London : Penguin Books in association with Hamish Hamilton, 2000, 2000).
2 Ann Fisher-Wirth, Blue Window: Poems (Santa Maria, California: Archer Books, 2003).
3 ———, Dream Cabinet (San Antonio, Texas: Wings Press, 2012).
4 ———, ‘Q&a with Ann Fisher-Wirth’, ed. by Bloom (Bloom: 2015).
5 Elin Holmsten, ‘Shifting Boundaries: An Interview with Ann Fisher-Wirth’, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, 12 (2005), 131-37.
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