* * *
The Bird Confluence
There was a joint
between two rivulets that needed reconciliation
and I could provide it with inattentiveness,
as natural to me as the stride
between my name and namesake.
That is, barely, but conjurable
as emotional override,
a tidal supremacy to counter
the sureness of my public face,
the ache of its frozen features
in the presentation of my movability: the movie.
They rose as symbols,
the cranes, or as property battles,
wording a definition differently
for my speech level.
From a period when all I knew
was the filmic quality of consciousness
six inches from my face, that hovering
membrane, redaction threatening.
Each turn inward was matchlike,
clockwise, performed in a darkness
I’d afforded myself through steady
eschewing comforts, spinning
a hollowness under a contortionist lamp.
And what came of it were: drives through
dusk-like structures, through glacial legacies
roaming their own emptiness
cautioning mine away from this procedure,
towards silently rotating
the axel of the room’s anonymity,
towards bogged feathers in a doomed crossing.
I said I was trying to say everything beautiful
to the best of my understanding,
in accordance with an old angle on the birds,
the cranes specifically, but not more.
The morning Gallo told me is.
He’d observed their disappearance
from his life, the birds generally,
in his language, as phenomenon.
He had many thoughts about this life in general,
that one included. His purple rubber gloves,
for example, like a chef’s knife at large, war ready,
swung between sinks, to amount to form, earn
the weight of philosophy, startling
when I covered for him once, immediately
filled with failure. Soap bubbles lazy
in the air everywhere beautiful in an hourly-stalked
eternity where only hips behave.
And then an engorged vein, a context
cue like a steamroll from the future,
and a crabwalk through a moonlight
moment by the larger of the isthmus’s blind spots.
The wavelengths pixelate, produce futures.
Another stairwell, divorced from that feeling,
begging to return to major scales,
to the birds as subject, barely humming
in a blood system, that’s it, swearing
away obedience to subjecthood,
the wings of mythic prerogatives
trailblazing their grips on the year of cake.
You saw them flitting through fields
of your imagination on drives,
like your ancestors in a map
of mounds, wavering into topics
you’d perform in front of crowds
in your left hand’s language,
in fields frequenting your imaginary drives
like in a car burning the globe,
zeros. You might be speaking
in twelve time zones, contemplating
law again, drifting into conference
form, in droves, lanes loosening ties
to the possibility of peer resolution.
The biteplate that formed animal curiosities,
ridged like oral topography, told you
something about the myths you adhere to,
the vision of stripes in the contact zone sequence
you strove to enter practically
like the ocean shocking intimate levels within theory,
with minimal artillery, into career.
It was God’s thumb, sea-salty, pressed to the roof
of your mouth, plugging you up
with dim awareness. That everything, only, is.
Everything beautiful is gone temporarily,
migration too huge, every-directional, accordioning
at a complex waistband, translatability
is untranslatability, us laughing about it, everything
beautiful about the muteness of you.
You count as a five-year volunteer
conductor of the war chemicals, their numerical
radiance dead at commuter hour, jabs
of sound protruding from who is this?
The maestro’s armlength
waves, his wavelength arms
you with hope for pattern’s dissolution
while it’s made,
exponentiating the dark like an argument
for lighter fluid, as the numbers
smear against the ridges, as if dipping
into cooling chocolate,
as if you two were balanced
on the dam on your honors exclusively,
the conscripts behind you watching
the match, more for the sign of forbidden
flash than art. You have inched
from their ages, sand-laced,
completely beaten by a generation
to this dimensionless discussion,
my claim to have been touchable quietly tipping
into another’s privacy when our beak
masks, slit at the nostrils, meet surf city.
* * *
Commentary on the Birds
I was thinking about confluence as situated between Ashbery’s “commotion” and Farid Attar’s “conference” [of the birds], about those birds erupting from the chimney last summer in Ann Arbor. That was wild—and contained. And experiencing a kind of river that runs between the informational banks of those two words. I was thinking about public-facing work in opposition to a myth of the interior. And how the eye startles me when I see it in prose, but I don’t mind it (and in fact it feels invisible to me) in poetry, which is totally a blind spot I’m living with right now among many.
I was thinking about how I followed cranes as devices, as sort of literary technologies, for like five years. Which is, wow. As fictional beings, as tropes or symbols—I just followed them to literal places and they had literal effects on my life. They organized everything, too much. To the extent that when I saw them in the flesh in Cheorwon, there was that kind of underwhelming thing (like seeing the Mona Lisa). But then also this feeling of, oh, I followed a complete—I got to this very real situation. Or a feeling of a shadow catching up to itself, surrendering height to gain dimension, and I was the exaggeration of the actual thing. I was that elongated form before it could be walked around or embraced or anything, anything material. I was more in touch at first with the expression of it, I’m saying, the form of what’s cast by something else, and still. So not the birds themselves, not to them, but for them, like Pastor C. would say about scripture, not to purport anything like holiness in this, and not even that, for them, at first. Towards them, I guess, knowing I’m guessing, I’ll miss. It was my engagement with the people, people who love birds, with bird people, that made me question my business with them too, the volunteerism of it all, the empire: was I one of those people or birds? Yes and no, in a fluid sphere. Is that
I was thinking about two things: not really in opposition, but one growing out of the other. Geopolitics. Eco-poetics. Their confluence in my experience. Ulaanbaatar was the first time I’d seen a contortionist. Right? We’d seen so much outdoor performance, but that was the first indoor one. Outdoor performances whose borders were really vague—social suggestions where the wrestling ends, no cones for the racehorses. Winds were interrupting everything, the literal arrows in the air. But then we were in this contained space with the contortionist, a ticketed space, and it could’ve been anywhere, but it was also such an overtly signaled “culture show,” in the dark.
I was thinking of how my writing could behave like that when I bite down too hard, the flexibility leaves my body, flushes into the act: suddenly an Act: From the image of her hand cupped upward, her palm growing, came the story of a water bird—a smaller shore bird, I don’t remember its name, but it had one—that was trying to cross the Yellow Sea. Doctor L. was telling me about it on the way back from the CCZ. I think he was liberated from the need to think or talk about the cranes for a while because we’d finished the count. He’d been eerily silent at first about all other birds, at least with me while he was busy driving and notating. We would see sparrows fly by, things dart across the paddy roads, but it was like he didn’t see them or didn’t care. Only soon I’d realize he’d just been screening them out so he could focus. The first day, when we were done counting cranes, we went on this unplanned joyride where he pointed them all out, in a frenzy. It was a gush of love he’d been holding in all morning. More of that came on the way back to Seoul, that love and sadness, which I think is a feeling highly visible in the confluence I’m exploring and that birds so uniquely emblematize, while also being specific to
Doctor L. as a conservationist.
He was telling me the story of this bird that didn’t make it. By then I was speaking in Korean to him more and, I told you this, my questions for whatever reason were finally connecting to some extent. Before, in English solely, something with intonation, my questions weren’t registering as questions; they’d go comically or poignantly unanswered. They were naturalized into silence, sort of, the statement of silence. But the story, the story. Basically, it reminded me of the goose
that drops from the sky mid-migration, in that prose poem I wrote as a story. The simile I use is: its body like a suitcase ejected from an airplane, its wings flapping at exactly all the wrong times. Or something like that. That horrible image. That’s the contortionist’s shadow making an appearance in my fiction-driven world, poems were shadows of fictions to me then, maybe still. And that flashed me back to Doctor L’s story: they were tracking it. They were watching the bird somehow. They watched it essentially drown, in this storm, as a dot on a screen, all the drama inferred: It went all the way across the Yellow Sea (or like ¾ of the way), got to the point where the winds were so strong that it was flying exactly in place. They thought it’d died there but then the dot starting moving east towards the peninsula, it’d decided to turn around, and for a moment they were cheering for it, but these birds aren’t strong enough to make the trip twice—what thing could? Once they hit the water and their wings get that wet, that’s it, they can’t fly.
Could I say I had a love for them? I think yes, by way of narrative. Could it be said I was anthropomorphizing the birds in order to love them? I think yes and no, that sphere again. More a moment of: a negative of the birds. It’s me struggling with subject, as if subject is surface. A lot of my poems have that thing where the resistance to surface enacts the sensation of surface. I have a similar problem with subject—or topic. Clearly. I’m really feeling that lately, painfully. I’m very quick to lose my premise, too quick maybe. Too shifty. And in the same way I’m subliminally attracted to underdogs in sports who end up not fulfilling the upset narrative and leaving me personally crushed about it, I think I’m fatally attracted to premises—and conceptual territories, like the DMZ—that I suspect from the onset are false floors, or slipknots into poetics. Things I know will come undone when I pull on them, into free fall.
But the problem with that is I’m here on state funding, to do a very specific thing in a very specific genre category that I declared as operative for me well before I discovered poetry as a perhaps more lucid or regular medium for me. So I was thinking about my failed fictions precisely in relation to that, my essays I can’t write. Creative nonfiction. The imagined social legibility of sitting in a café and pretending to study for a standardized test to quell the guilty voice that hovers when I write poems and then actually studying for the standardized test as if by accident when I get frustrated with poems. What is ancillary to what? The confluence of practice and pretending is what? My biggest fear is that I’m never writing, I’m method acting being a writer, sitting in those scenes. But then sometimes you remember why you can’t stop: a bird pulls you back into the world. Two doves alight on your window. One of the fictions I falsestarted on in that transitionary period where I was recognizing poetic inclinations as actionable was where I was moving towards this anecdote about my co-worker, remember? Gallo, confessing to me in semi-secrecy, or with, like, at least some kind of startling emotional gravity laced in that amazing hummus, that lately, he’d observed the disappearance of birds.
I was enamored with this phrase, with the feeling, especially coming from him—he had these huge, shiny eyes—and that I could understand and identify with it seemingly so clearly, in what little Spanish I had. I was remembering his signature purple gloves that he carried between his two jobs. He had a night job at Wendy’s, where I often went at night with Cal, but I never saw him because he was busy in the back. We only shared our mornings. I wished I could’ve talked to him more, but language limited me. I like to think that in the universe where all those birds went, we could have had that conversation again, with them. We will.
And watching that guy, the teacher, Teacher, I guess that’s where this ends, counting those geese with his hands skyward, as if in praise, approximating the multitudes, it was wild, his arms like a conductor’s, like he was committing brushstrokes on a ceiling—the hundreds, thousands of them right over our heads, flying over the ridge to their roost on the far side of the reservoir, the ducks departing from the water, the water solidifying in the dark. The DMZ was just beyond us, of course, its “aesthetic frisson” as Eleana J. Kim calls it, the aura of its forbidden-ness1, like this velvety curtain granting the whole event this kind of ridiculous, problematizable, unquantifiable beauty. So just beauty and us in it. As for Teacher, the Sky Conductor, he was so many things in that moment to me watching, I called him brother in my heart. A guy who’d been kind and conversational, who’d entertained my Korean, who’d explained the kickback of certain firearms and its consequence on a shoulder. A freelance wilderness guide, ten years my senior, a member of a conservationist coalition, an icosahedron approaching that sphere: he was so mammalian suddenly and pure—is that an issue?—one of those guys on the airport tarmac waving batons— aircraft marshals, I think they’re called. He was stranded on an island waving for help. He was waving them on, the birds, like, “get out of here, save yourselves!” He was plucking them out of the sky like coins, joking that he was collecting for every five hundred geese, five hundred won. He’d buy drinks with them later. Would I join him? Was this confluence? Was he was flapping his arms to grow feathers?
1 Kim, Eleana J. “Toward an Anthropology of Landmines: Rogue Infrastructure and Military Waste in the
Korean DMZ.” Cultural Anthropology 31, no. 2 (May 2016): 168.
Jed Munson was born in Madison, Wisconsin. His writing has appeared in Full Stop, Diode Poetry Journal, and others.
featured photo by Jed Munson
author photo by Keum-ji Son