Bird Lovers, Backyard
Tuesday, October 12th, 2010
And now I persuade you to acquire a book from which any quote or sampling is both wholly representative and of no indicative use whatsoever. Let’s!
Were I to ask the Lord why Bird Lovers, Backyard is not one of Barnes and Noble’s 100 Best Sellers of the Hour (this list, it does exist, it does), where Nelson Mandela’s Conversations with Myself sits a few rungs down from The Lost Hero (Heroes of Olympus Series #1), The Ugly Truth (Diary of a Wimpy Kid Volume #5), and American Assassin (Mitch Rapp Series #11), the Lord might respond thus:
What does Thalia Field have that those books don’t?
Alternately, the Lord, really on task, could ask:
What doesn’t Thalia Field have that these books do?
Nice rally, Lord, but here’s the thing: I’m not suggesting Bird Lovers, Backyard belongs in the list. I submit that it ought replace that list.
Because it has everything in it.
At which time the Lord might see fit to remind me of the cherem issued against Spinoza for suggesting substance doesn’t require the Lord as previously understood. Point, point, but look: even a duality is a kind of hierarchy; equivalency is just a binary tipped on its side. To the degree that this is true—a degree that obliterates degree—that truth begins to elude the mind as soon as the mind registers it. That’s how you get from Spinoza to Hegel, from Hegel to Marx, from Marx to a host of political actors and ideologues about whom little good can be said. Mud baked into bricks, bricks to build a building, a building from which to throw bricks. If it’s a choice between the neglect of Barnes and Nobles 100 Best Sellers of the Hour and enmity, bless neglect.
While I hope you find that shiny and meritorious, you, and my editor, likely want to know something about Bird Lovers, Backyard. Although that desire smothers much of what Bird Lovers, Backyard, does, I’ll give it a go, just so you won’t accuse me of shifting off my duties.
A pigeon problem, as articulated by persons on behalf of persons and pigeons both;
Many introductions to what isn’t a ghost story on, under, about and embodied in what once was Bikini Island, slowly experiencing radiological decay, or not;
An essay, of sorts, on the glorious history of the failures of naming;
An approximately lyric population ecology portrait of seeing sea-shells by the sea-shore, if by population you refer to the organic and the organic and by ecology you mean beauty;
A long expository accounting of Konrad Lorenz, one of the founders of ethology, and his smartness-wrongness;
A transcript, kinda; well, no, not really;
A testament to and of Vicki Hearne, human crux of rigor and compassion;
A discussion group;
A return to the pigeon problem, which we now see is more than pigeons and much more than a problem.
Does that help?
Field includes all of these. And her method of inclusions enfolds far more. Sometimes it looks like this:
Pigeons try to fly home. Taking advantage of this, Egyptian sultans, ancient Greeks, Persians, all established Pigeon Posts. A desire for homecoming feels familiar, and might explain why flies are nuisances while pigeons bother us so completely: reflection over time. Pigeons have been seen hitching rides on subways and buses, knowing which stops to get on and off. They know so many of our tricks.
and sometimes this:
CHAPTER ONE If this were a ghost story, precautions might be better taken. it was once believed that burying scandalous folks—murderers, pagans, suicides—at a crossroads would be the only way to get them in the ground. But it could also be true that carrying the dead to the crossroads and turning them around, creating a maze, or burying them facing down (or the wrong way), then walking home by another route—all this might ensure that the ghost who felt unfinished with you couldn’t follow and take up where he left off.
and sometimes this:
There are no extant writings of the Name-Disputer, Hui Shi, though he appears in other people’s texts. It is told how he relied on analogy. (“If you don’t let him use analogies, he won’t be able to speak!”) The King once asked Hui Shi why he wouldn’t just talk directly. If you want a definition of a bird, Hui Shi replied, and all you get is “a bird is a bird,” you haven’t learned much. But if you say “A bird is like a person, except with wings,” then you can expand what is known by pointing out the unknown, using the same to extend into difference. But even though he was a successful politician, Hui Shi’s lackadaisical relativism offended more ethics-minded Confucians.
Each, in isolation, presents something of interest in prose felicitous enough to justify further reading. In these discrete forms, they sometimes resemble the wandering annotations of Eliot Weinberger. But where his reports and speculations progress towards a whole, Field’s question the very idea of the whole even as they pleasingly approximate the same. For example, Hui Shi’s observations about the naming of birds encapsulates and expands upon the pigeon problem, while the changing fortunes of the pigeon’s reputation predicts the discomfort and strategic disorientation of the tactical burial.
So the inclusion of Lorenz (the “discoverer” of biological impression patterns and possessor of racially-inflected ideas) and Hearne (ethicist of animal essence, especially as regards the definitional and reciprocal relations between human and animal) makes perfect essayistic sense. Yet while they could and do work in those terms, they do much more, because Field refuses to conclude a line of inquiry once opened, just as she sees an affinity between any number of points as something more than a set of lines.
I could do this all night.
Guy Davenport once drew a useful distinction between Joyce and Pound by insisting that the latter focused on the origins of energies, while the former concerned himself with how those energies were used. The system works for any number of modernists: Moore v H.D., for instance. And it likely could be made to work all the way up to Olson.
But it doesn’t work anymore, because the energies of which Davenport spoke have so receded from ready reference that their use no longer describes a lineage. You cannot find the well, but you can fall into it—which doesn’t even count as discovery. Because the “nature” of the contemporary is that one can get anywhere from anywhere else, but can’t distinguish between getting there and being there, the contemporary writer either capitulates to this or pretends it isn’t true. There’s no real point to the latter strategy, however, because the pretense cannot persuade. Elective falseness persists in human imagination, but the conditions thereby resisted persist as well.
It’s Field’s peace with this, her ease with shuttling between the products of hierarchical thinking and the methods that dismantle them, that makes her such a pleasure to read and such a pain to justly describe. Bird Lovers, Backyard owns the most elegant geometry of any book I’ve read in, oh Lord, many a year. In the same way that Davenport’s above/below, origin/execution template disappears via the simple magic of rendering it lateral, Field does equally weird and edifying things to the allegedly necessary gravity of contemplation.
Sometimes it’s like this:
A falling body does not fall in a straight line, it falls in a curved parabola of space-time. In other words, a straight line of space-time is curved, so things don’t land directly where they fall. Aristotle made provisions for things high and low in his physics, things in their rightful or borrowed places. Physical laws make rocks fall, go back to their natural place—″to know the earth.” A rock can’t be a rock high off the ground. In falling it regains its essential rock-ness. Architects might become more edge-adept if they spent time lying on sidewalks looking up, taking it all into account.
Up, then, becomes around. Field’s advice for architects is equally sound for writers, thinkers, all those who see genres as aspects of, rather than things themselves. That’s a lot to ask of the Barnes and Noble’s 100! Top! Sellers! Of the now! But it isn’t a list, anyway. As Field herself writes, this isn’t what we think it is. This is thinking, what is everything, we as storytellers are a fiction-making fiction, it isn’t, but is, is. Assassins, heroes, ugly truths, Olympus and America, conversations with one’s self, another’s other. Bird Lovers, Backyard is so ahead of the parabola it describes that it’s impossible, which makes the fact of its existence even more delightful. If you don’t believe me, buy a copy. You’ll see.
(Spinoza ground glass, made lenses. Natura naturans. Field, too, grinds her lenses. She makes what is.)
Have comments about this review? Send a Letter to the Editor