Thursday Poem: There Are Birds Here by Jamaal May

So, it’s been a while since I shared some poetry. I know I gave y’all a heads up a while ago that I wouldn’t be posting as often, but I still feel shitty about it. Things have been altogether rubbish on my side. Even though I’ve had some great publications in the past six weeks–in Junkee, The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Mascara Lit Review, The Wheeler Centre and Going Down Swinging–things have been generally declining on the financial front since my day-job work has dried up. Even as I begin to stress about paying the rent, my mother is facing eviction from her house, and I’ve been trying to deal with that at the same time. Obviously, I have been less than successful on that front. In any case, here we are; no matter the circumstances, the general awfulness of everyday, I return to poetry. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to communicate the level of comfort and joy there is in knowing I’ll forever have a home in its ephemeral heart.

Which brings me to the poem of the week, ‘There Are Birds Here‘ by Jamaal May. It begins with a dedication to Detroit, then:

There are birds here,
so many birds here
is what I was trying to say
when they said those birds were metaphors
for what is trapped
between buildings
and buildings. No.

Many people in the poetry world have a hard-on against the use of birds in poetry. It’s been done, ugh, they’ll say. I’ve even seen it on submission pages, editors saying they don’t want to see poems about or principally featuring birds. Imagine being so unreservedly dull and closed off to potential? The truth is that everything’s been done to death even death itself, so singling out anything in particular seems silly. What it comes down to is what it always comes down to: execution. Care and craft. If you have those two things, you can render anything new. Don’t be afraid of writing about a subject purely because of the subjective opinion of others; if it appeals to you, go for it. Besides, birds used to be fucking dinosaurs; how that doesn’t occupy more of our everyday thoughts, I’ll never know.

Anyway, back to Jamaal’s intriguing opening, the repetition of ‘there are birds here’ implies a lie–it has that slight sing-song of denial. And denial here is the rampant theme, this is a poem rejecting a reality we only get to “see” through the poet’s own negation. It is the missing part of the conversation, except in those opening lines where it gets to say that the birds here are metaphors, which is immediately shut down with “No.” followed by confirmation of his opening:

The birds are here
to root around for bread
the girl’s hands tear
and toss like confetti. No,
I don’t mean the bread is torn like cotton,
I said confetti, and no
not the confetti
a tank can make of a building.

I love love love that last image, ‘the confetti a tank can make of a building.’ That’s stunning. I love, too, this refrain of denial–to whom is he saying no? Is it the city itself?–which sets up the images he clearly wants us to see, images which cannot be repudiated. Simply saying no is not enough, you know? There are aspects to this reality which are undeniable, there are things you cannot unsee, devastation you cannot simply wish away when it has already worn itself indelibly into your world. In that sense, the narrator of the poem is unreliable. You cannot trust his “no”, cannot trust his assertion that the birds aren’t metaphors, not when every rejection is followed by truth.

The first time I read it, each ‘No’ had a hardness to it, the rigidity of anger, but on reading it again, I’m more inclined to hear the sorrowful no of grief, when you’re trying to come to terms with any kind of loss–personal, social, geographical. Make no mistake: damage to the landscape that shaped you can wound every bit as much as a knife in your flesh, but is far less likely to heal.

My thanks to Rabih Alameddine for sharing this excellent poem on his blog. Go and read it.

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