Birdwatching in Wartime by Jeffrey Thomson
(Carnegie Mellon University Press, February 2009)
John Berryman made the famous observation “Life, friends, is boring” and many poets today seem to agree. A great deal of modern work seems to be concerned with mining through layers of the mundane to access some nugget of meaning. We often conflate the everyday and the possible.
Birdwatching in Wartime suggests that the problem may be geographical. Most of us simply don’t live where it’s dangerous. We no longer feel overwhelmed by physicality— hunger, pain, and wild beauty. Jeffrey Thomson brings us back to this world.
Thomson’s poems wind through the Amazon, detailing the fantastical creatures that seem to emerge from every direction. The poems are at times overwhelming, but leave me with a terror and fascination unmatched in any other poetry I’ve read. Much of the effect comes from Thomson’s lyrical dexterity:
…a pity not to have seen
the spattered sun
scribbled down to nothing more than matchlight on army ants
engraving leaf litter,
the cuneiform of tapir prints in the mud of that flat-banked stream,
not to have seen
the wattled jacana scrawl across water lilies with her vast, forked feet
never to have taken piranha from the river and watched them slap
across the bottom of the boat.
But unlike many lyrical poets, I get the sense that Thomson’s language is lagging behind the reality of the experiences, not dominating them. I picture him running through the jungle, breathlessly jotting down what is happening around him without enough time to focus on any particular wonder.
There is an almost inconceivable breadth and strangeness in Thomson’s landscapes. In “Landscape with Flooded Forest,” Thomson shows us a world where “the horizon rises up around the shoulders of trees/ and fish fly through branches in flocks of scale…a wire-tailed manakin flames/ through the middle-story treetops and pink dolphins/ slalom through the sunken trunks.” The impossibility of these images and their apparent reality challenge the imagination. But there is a darker side to these worlds; a constant danger:
when those wasps
stapled my back and sides and face
…when the splotches flushed across my back
my neck, my sweat-licked face,
when the diaspora of venom wrote a question across my back
in hot letters that left me
cold and shaking
The less personal but no less fierce violence of the “Tarantulas that hunt fish” or “piranha, red-bellied as rage…that dissembled a swimming sloth” also stalks through the poems. Thomson’s cocktail of fear and wonder is potent. It keeps the poems engaging even when the density of creatures and events threatens to overwhelm them.
Though Thomson’s Amazon poems are the vanguard of Birdwatching in Wartime, they are not the totality of the army he has deployed. He also experiments with two long multi-part poems. The first, the “Celestial Emporeum of Benevolent Knowledge,” plays with the idea of cataloguing experience into a handful of categories. Thomson’s fresh use of language is an asset here and the poem sparkles with clever metaphorical gems. Though it’s length and wit are impressive, the poem seems to buckle under the freedom afforded by its scope. The second long poem, “Blind Desire,” is largely successful, with a coherent series of three-tercet sections interlocking through a sequence of overlapping images.
Other directions abound in Birdwatching, including commentary on religion, imperialism, and desire, a poem entwined in the philosophy and desperation of Jack Gilbert, and a poem comprised solely of footnotes. But it is really the Amazon poems and their “Landscape” form, which re-appears throughout, that give this book its thrust. “Beauty is a theatre of risk” writes Thomson, and in terms of form and content, this book goes all in.
Dmitry Berenson is pursuing a PhD in Robotics at Carnegie Mellon
University. He is an avid reader and writer of poetry.