The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman (Penguin Press 2016)
This book is filled with all kinds of wonderful anecdotes that remind us that we are not alone on this planet. Having witnessed myself the genius of Kea birds in New Zealand I welcomed this foray into historical as well as contemporary research into the mental capacity of birds.
The great naturalist Edmond Selous, who loved birds passionately and observed them with scientific fervor, attributed the flocking phenomenon to telepathic thought transference from one bird to the next ‘They circle; now dense like a polished roof, now disseminated like the meshes of some vast all-heaven sweeping net, now darkening, now flashing out a million rays of light…..a madness in the sky. (p. 29)
Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey (Little Brown and Company 2016)
In 2013 I collaborated with Novey contributing to Sylph Editions Cahiers series to produce Clarice: The Visitor, two suites of poems by Novey accompanied by selections of work from my Naked Eye series and my Dog Ear series. I was so excited when I heard she was coming out with a novel this year and I’m thrilled to say how much I love it.
It’s a beautiful novel that manages to advance a multi layered narrative through concise poetic prose questioning the limits of how we can come to know ourselves and others.
I especially love the dictionary definitions that punctuate the text and augment the story:
Matter: From the Latin word for the woody part of a tree, derivative of mater mother. 1. Something that can be perceived by one of more senses – an ear, for example, as seen by an eye. 2. A subject to which a person may refer without having to name it, as in:
A woman stared at the matter on her lap. (p. 159)
Three Strong Women by Marie Ndiaye (Alfred A. Knopf 2012)
Ndiaye is a French-Senegalese author living in France who is only just starting to gain more recognition in the English speaking world as not many of her works have been translated. Situated in both France and Senegal Three Strong Women presents intensely subtle psychological portraits with an equally subtle touch of psychological magical realism, although I’m not sure if that term is too loaded to describe her unique accomplishment.
Rudy was about to put his arm around Djibril’s shoulder in a gesture he never normally went for. He had to think it through before doing so in order to make it look as natural as possible. Then beside the acacias that lined the road, he saw a broken shape out of the corner of his eye. Turning his head gingerly he looked at the calm, watchful buzzard perched at the top of one of the trees. (p. 207)
Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives by Susan Howe (Christine Burgin / New Directions 2014)
Letters and life, history, writing, ephemera, poets and poetry.
Sheer verbal artistry can be a force for mercy. I have always been drawn to Edwards (Jonathan), even his fire-eating sermons where each judging word has its own particular cell. Especially the notorious ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God: A Sermon Preached at Enfield, July 8th 1741, at a Time of Great Awakenings” with its chilling epigraph from Deuteronomy 32, ‘Their Foot shall slide in due time’, because he understands the way in which single words and sentence clusters directly effect involuntary memory. Involuntary memory is lucid, pre-verbal, soothing. Hit or miss-an arrow into the eye of loving. (p. 51)
And finally, I just started reading Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton (Catapult Press 2016), a re-imagining of a little known historical seventeenth century figure.
The prose is so lovely full of thick mouthfuls of luscious adjectives and nouns it makes me want to read each sentence twice the better to savor everything.
As the driver pulled over to attend the injured animal, I sat and watched the sky-an oceanic mass of gray, with islands of steel blue-thinking yes, certainly, birds must sleep at times while they fly. How ridiculous it was to think otherwise. Yet my brothers’ tutor, a man from Oxford with red eyebrows, had informed me the previous morning that no such thing could occur. Such a thing, he’d opined, would be an affront to God, who had blessed birds with the ability to sleep and the ability to fly, but not the ability to sleep while flying or fly while sleeping. Absurd! Moreover, he went on, were it to be the case , each morning we should find at our feet heaps of dead birds that had smashed into rooftops or trees in the night. Night after night we would be awakened by this ornithological cacophony, this smashing of beaks against masonry, this violence of feathers and bones. It will not do, he said, to too greatly admire the mysteries of nature. But I remembered that sparrow on the riverbank and secretly held that the world was not so easily explained by the tutor’s reason. Indeed, it was then that I first formed the opinion – if childishly, idly – that a person should trust to her own good sense and nature’s impenetrable wisdom. (p.12)