How pleasing when a
ripens with rain. Water-logged
seeds imagine blossoms
& the swell
of duration / wings sail along
ponds & hedges /
root rivers. Hear in shallow pools,
the unremitted flappings
wading the course of days
in the afterstorm / an axe’s
hung at the extremity of a twig
drops & drowns. Rings
quills / fly off.
The full-length debut by French-American writer and scholar Béatrice Szymkowiak [see her recent '12 or 20 questions' interview here], following RED ZONE (Finishing Line Press, 2018), is B/RDS (Salt Lake City UT: The University of Utah Press, 2023), published as winner of the Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry. Much like New Hampshire-based Polish-American poet and translator Ewa Chrusciel’s recent Yours, Purple Gallinule (Omnidawn, 2022) [see my review of such here], B/RDS (obviously) is a book of birds that writes into the Anthropocene and out of John James Audobon’s Birds of America (1827-1838) as a source text both for content and language, pulling threads and highlighting the losses of entire species of birds due to human interference. As Szymkowiak offers as part of the book’s “Preface”:
My writing process started by considering the text of Birds of America (the Ornithological Biography accompanying the drawings) as an archival cage. For this reason, I resolved to strictly abide by the rule of keeping the order of the words (or letters) from the text-source—my text-source being Birds of America in alphabetical order. I then selectively erased the textual cage to reveal its ambiguity and the complex relationship between humanity and the other-than-human world. As the cage disappeared, birds escaped, their voices inextricably entangled with ours—a spectral, equivocal “we.” Finally, I reshuffled the resulting poems and added migratory poems written in my own words and prompted from lines from the erasure poems. These migratory poems, like ripples, trace the link between past and present.
B/RDS is a book of precision and moving through space, through air, propelled and attuned to a uniquely-magical language and lyric. There is such delight and play of strike and sound through these lines, even as each poem sits as an individual cobblestone or brick, each set to articulate the accumulated outline of her subject of ecological erosion. She writes on birds, and the waves of man-made losses and their rippling effects. As Agha Shahid Ali Prize judge Monica Youn writes as part of her “Foreward”: “Throughout Béatrice Szymkowiak’s devastatingly beautiful B/RDS, I felt as if I were responding to a similar call, but the echoing voices in this collection are real, urgent, inescapable—a fusion of elegy and prophecy. With its trills and elisions, grace notes and percussive cries, the collection gives voice to the billions of birds lost on this continent over the past decades through human predation, industrialization, waste and sprawl—James Elroy Flecker’s classic phrase seems apt: ‘That silence where the birds are dead / yet something pipeth like a bird.’” Szymkowiak simultaneously writes directly and slant on birds and their losses, writing of seasons and flights, of sun and landscapes along the ridge. As the prose poem “Wherever Sun Ends” writes, in full: “Two crows perched in the pine grove caw ghosts of unsung passing. Ice spears from the eaves. Dread devours clouds. I fear how tangible your tongue before its silence. Deer ellipses dot the snow thawing clock. On the ground, a red-tailed hawk claws & tears its own disappearance.”
The Night Is Pitch-Dark but We /
murmur through shattered glass breathe, breathe, the light from dead stars still glows! Along night eaves, mangled starlings heave stellar wings to tenebrous ceilings & tilt equinox back to breathe, breathe constellations. Light is shattered from the mangled night. how many dead stars still glow? Tenebrous wings cleave away from you, heave equinox back to pitch-dark ceilings. Breathe, breathe, starlings murmur along mangled eaves, how constellations tilt from dead stars to light! Still you, shattered wings through tenebrous glass murmur how many, how many dead stars
& cleave equinox halves away.