The first ‘bird’ in Noy Holland’s Bird, a debut novel—though ‘debut’ seems just wrong for this high priestess of prose with three stunning story collections behind her—appears on the second page:
Something small—a bird—several—wobbled, blown behind her, the flock a scattering of ash in the wind in the cold above the river, the barges moored. The garbage scow.
On the next page, the next ‘bird’:
She heard rats plumping their nests in the walls and the creak of the beaten wings of birds falling out of the wind in the airshaft.
The third ‘bird’ is Bird herself, and she’s been tied up by Mickey, her erratic junky lover, “[a] boy who knew his knots,” and left on the floor in the hovel of their Brooklyn apartment. It bears repeating. “A boy who knew his knots.” This all bears repeating. There is so much more than a good story to be mined from these ore-laden pages, more than joy in the music—“the barges moored. The garbage scow”—more even than the ribbons of repetition Holland tightens into enigmatic knots—how ‘bird,’ for instance, ‘word,’ ‘fire,’ ‘drove a Drive Away out’ twist up into prismatic signs every bit as slippery and loaded as any heavy compound any German philosopher ever coined. No, there’s something greater, even, to be gained here—something, maybe, like the want that so overtakes Bird, “the kid-at-a-county-fair feeling she gets: feels the heat and wild sickening swing of what she wants, has picked and paid for, thought she wanted: ragdolled, the snapping plunge, the quieting climb before you fall so fast you are lifted up and floating.” It is both harrowing and contagious, the want Bird loves and suffers, suffers even in the now of the novel, now where Bird finds herself, housebound in New England. Mickey’s gone, the baby never born. “She married another. Mothered another.” And coupled with absence is the terrible brittleness of the once lithe body grown older, not just Bird’s body, pelvis cracked from the recent birth of her second child, bladder “unmoored and inelastic”—“Your every living tissue, sugar,” best friend Suzie says, “pressed into service”—but also the body of the sediment language, every living tissue pressed into service, the language she has to express her longing when “every word she utters or hears makes it feel flimsy and dull.” And yet we will find want here, longing alive despite the calcifying function of the word, torqued, if anything, into something entirely unwieldy and unavoidable. It overtakes us. In Holland’s Bird, as in Bird’s suburban home, “word finds its way along—no matter how far out you live.”
She thinks of a boy in Kansas hung up on a swing, cripple boy, a boy they saw once, a little rope swing, a log on a rope, among the shadows. Among the signs. She and Mickey drove a Drive Away out, setting out from Brooklyn, dark, when the stars lined up how they sometimes do and anything you look at, everything’s a sign. SLEEP SLEEP SLEEP, the sign says. It says, Move while you still can.
Glimpsed through a restless night, a harried morning, the web-work of Bird’s housework, long hours alone, Holland unveils piecemeal a past, fragmented and haunted, a sequence of events, a world drawn clearer with each twirl around the words that simultaneously arouse Bird’s desire and further distance her from its object. Words, like those in the passage above, might come a hundred pages before we can contextualize them: a view during a road trip taken when the temporary refuge of their Brooklyn apartment—“Every room smelled of fire”—finally grows too oppressive to shelter them, a hung dog and a miscarriage later. Words like ‘Tuk’ and ‘Doll Doll’ slur with the churning scenery, like blurred neon evoking erotic insides now irretrievably behind us. Then a truck picks hitchhiking Bird and Mickey up somewhere between Cheyenne and Albuquerque:
[Tuk] was dressed like a man of the region weathered into his middle years—in a worked-over hat, a bandanna at the neck. Doll Doll was a kid in pantyhose, in a bodysuit like bubble wrap, her culotte a bilious plaid. She had a candy necklace between her teeth she was sucking the color from. The dye left a smeary chinstrap of many muddied colors.
But the disorientation such a narrative strategy produces never frustrates. Inscrutable phrases or passages are signs, or stars, and what they signal is ominous and irrevocable. These are wormholes through the book we are enticed to leap into: “SLEEP,” we find a hundred pages later. “The S flickered out while they watched it.” So we learn to leap. And not just at the inscrutable passages, either, but at easy, everyday words, words one might not even notice—“An ampersand, the bartender’s tat. And is truer than but, they agreed.” This all bears repeating. Holland’s stars line up how they sometimes do and anything you look at, everything’s a sign.
This bears repeating: “Every room smelled of fire.” However hard Bird harps on her past with Mickey, the combustible doom of their love, the utter irrevocability of its end, is palpable in every passage.
Now he was in her, disappearing, shade to shade, his cock like a bull’s in the shadow they cast. Bird slickened with blood she was losing still; on her breasts, hieroglyphs of his hands. Mineral seep. Her feet were pewter; a beetle wandered in the swales of her tendons, daubing methodically at the spatter of her blood. A speckled wing, iridescent. Nothing more moved but Mickey, Bird—a shadow fused, a Gorgon’s head.
In Bird and Mickey’s love and in its loss, tenderness and murder, pleasure and pain, arousal and orgasm, creation and destruction, each is intimately entwined with its other, two sides of the same sign, a shadow fused.
“I can’t see right,” he said. “You make me dizzy and I want to fall down. I want to bite into your neck dust in your throat on my hand your blood on my cock and legs and I’m home sticky summer night, I am breathing your breath and you cry out and I want to fuck you so hard, Bird, now, now and for the rest of us living.”
In the same desperate dream for forever, for the rest of their living, is a deep distrust of that same longevity, of survival—“What an awful word—survive, Bird thinks. Sufficient, Bird thinks. Service.” These same contradictions twist through the language, this language both calcified—every living tissue pressed into service—and aflame. As we travel Holland’s ribbons of repetition, following those clarified signs toward swells of significance, the signs blur again, the ribbons unravel.
“I don’t mean it.” He picked a chair up and poked her in the stomach. “We don’t mean it. We don’t mean anything. Keep away from me, Bird. I’m not well.”
The specter of Bird’s past that so clearly haunts her present is, itself, haunted by the present, its future calcification in the language of recollection and longing. And so these words’ urgent living in us is coupled with their falling apart, a shadow fused, a Gorgon’s head. Which is not to say that one reads this book and remains unchanged. Yes, these pages burn as we read them, but it’s as Tuk learned from fighting fires in Montana: “You don’t know what lives in the short grass until you set fire to it. It’s creepy with snakes and beetles, your birds that nest up on the ground.”
Beetles, birds, all manner of fauna nest in Bird’s pages, and scatter for life when we read through them. For life, they scatter, the great desire to live ignited by the same flames that will bring about their death. We can’t help but be swept up in Bird’s flight. That flight is like Mickey, hospitalized and delirious, having narrowly survived a fall into an elevator shaft:
“I kept seeing you when you found me. I was bleeding. I kept moving away from my blood—it would conduct the charge, I decided. I’d be fried in a puddle of blood. Or I’d be saved, but when they hauled me up the cable to lift me out, I would pick up a fatal splinter, a strand worked loose from the braided steel that would sail through me like a spear thrown into the royal chamber of my heart. You’re in my royal chamber, Bird. But my head feels broken open. Every word feels like fire I speak.”
Jesse Kohn‘s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Spork Press, Sleepingfish, Black Sun Lit, The Atlas Review, Everyday Genius, SAND Journal, and elsewhere. He has contributed essays and interviews to 3:AM, Full-Stop, The Rumpus, Quarterly Conversation, BOMB, Bookslut, HTMLGiant, and more. Links can be found at jessekohn.weebly.com.