Two weeks ago, at the Bali Emerging Writers Festival, I met another poet and she mentioned Richard Siken as someone I should look up. Today, I did just that, and I’m so very glad I did. It led me to this wonderful little poem, The Language of the Birds, which begins:
A man saw a bird and found him beautiful. The bird had a song inside him, and feathers. Sometimes the man felt like the bird and sometimes the man felt like a stone—solid, inevitable—but mostly he felt like a bird, or that there was a bird inside him, or that something inside him was like a bird fluttering. This went on for a long time.
Oh, boy. Prose poetry and ambiguity? This is my jam right here. In this poem, Siken grapples with the purpose of art and the concept of meaning itself, using the metaphor of this bird being seen through the prism of a man.
He sees this beautiful creature and wants to paint it but is overcome with existential despair. Why bother? Every writer on the face of this planet (and probably others) can relate to this angst, this battle between practicality and art — every other facet of our lives is geared toward tangible results, to definite benefits. Build a house and you can live in it, or someone else can; you are sheltered from the cold. Hunt an animal and even in creating death you are continuing life, you get to eat. Write a poem and… what? Who benefits?
And just because you want to paint a bird, do actually paint a bird, it doesn’t mean you’ve accomplished anything. Who gets to measure the distance between experience and its representation?
For me, the satisfaction comes from the work itself. A good line can give me a satisfaction beyond just about anything else; in the moment, it somehow feels more real than just about anything else, strong enough to support me even if all else was to suddenly fail. I write, too, because for me, this creative outlet is incontrovertibly tied to my mental health: the last time I stopped writing for a protracted period of time, I had a complete mental breakdown and was consumed by thoughts of suicide, every single day, until I almost gave in.
This isn’t a fairytale – I didn’t overcome my depression through writing again, not exactly anyway. I got through that rough patch with therapy and the support of my friends, but I realised in the process just how integral a relief valve writing is and that with it, I need never fall so low again. With all that said, this poem goes a little deeper than just asking the question ‘why write/paint/make art?’, it goes on to query what happens in the process once it’s underway, how it all changes, the relationship between the object and its representation. The bird is no longer a bird, it is somehow more and somehow less, it is text, it is within him and not.
But it isn’t a bird, it’s a man in a bird suit, blue shoulders instead of feathers, because he isn’t looking at a bird, real bird, as he paints, he is looking at his heart, which is impossible.
Hence the ambiguity I mentioned at the beginning, which is more a constantly shifting state of being than it is any coyness on the part of Siken, I believe. He goes into it further here, this investigation into the transformation that occurs as part of the artistic process.
They weren’t animals but they looked like animals, enough like animals to make it confusing, meant something but the meaning was slippery: it wasn’t there but it remained, looked like the thing but wasn’t the thing—was a second thing, following a second set of rules—and it was too late: their power over it was no longer absolute.
Okay, I’m now just doing that thing I do with poems I love, which is quote from it endlessly, so I’ll leave it at that — there are so many wonderful lines in there, so many I haven’t spoken about, not to mention layers of meaning waiting to be untangled. Yes, actual meaning, because however slippery it is for us creators to grasp, it is somehow always startlingly clear to the reader, and this poem shines with it. Some lines I’ve yet to completely unravel and that’s okay, that just leaves more for me to chew on when I read it again.