Friday, April 27, 2018

I Wish I'd Written This


The Language of Birds
After Galway Kinnell


If one were to interpret the language of birds
one might begin by confessing a fear
of heights, remembering days atop
the hemlock and the uneasy alliance of
thin branch beneath feet; and one would
have to study landings, carefully, for many,
many years before attempting to fall
with arms wide open from some great height.
If one were to interpret the language of birds.

If one were to interpret the language of birds
one would have to throw open the doors
and let them all in: warbler, wren, the swift river swallow,
and it would be necessary to make a bed
in the girders beneath the silver train bridge
and in the rafters of the abandoned barn
where the farmer hanged himself
and the swallows sang him all night from flesh.
If one were to interpret the language of birds.

In order to interpret the language of birds
one must ask what the crow knows of death,
what the red-winged blackbird knows of the reed
in the marsh where the world begins, again,
each morning, and one must rise out of bed
although the desire to do so is gone and the grey light
falling through the window touches, briefly,
a sadness that lives inside all that one is,
in order to interpret the language of birds.

If one were to interpret the language of birds
it would be necessary to steal from other songs
the one true song – the few notes sung
to please the jailor – and in singing feel
bones begin to thin and throat lengthen
and like the Baal Shem Tov  one would hear
their entreaties and know their songs
as the first griefs ever sung.
If one were to interpret the language of birds.

Eve Joseph
















A fervent bird-lover myself, this poem really speaks to me, especially the lines about birds’ warblings perhaps being the first grief songs ever sung. By my age, one accumulates a significant weight of the “sadness that lives inside all one is.”

Eve Joseph is a Canadian poet who grew up in North Vancouver, B.C., and who worked on freight trains and travelled widely in her youth. She and her family now reside in Victoria, on Vancouver Island. 

Her first book, The Startled Heart (2004), was shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. The book from which the above poem was taken, The Secret Signature of Things (2010), was shortlisted for the Victoria Butler Prize and the Dorothy Livesay Award. She received the 2010 P. K. Page Founder’s Award for poetry and the 2010 Malahat Creative Nonfiction Prize.

Ms. Joseph is a hospice worker, drawing from her experiences to write her non-fiction book on death and dying: In the Slender Margin: The Intimate Strangeness of Dying (2014), which won the Hubert Evans nonfiction award.  Her nonfiction has been short-listed for CBC Literary Awards, and was named the Globe Books 100: Best Canadian non-fiction 2014.

Her new book of poems, Quarrels, is coming out in May of this year. I can’t wait! Information on all Ms. Joseph's books can be found here.




When I contacted Eve to tell her we were featuring her work, she offered us a sneak peek at a prose poem from Quarrels, and I jumped at the chance to share it. Let's take a look:

*****

MY GRANDFATHER LAY MOTIONLESS BENEATH A CHENILLE BEDSPREAD.
His upturned hands drifting like little boats. He was coming and going through the open window, a little further each time. Chestnuts, spiked like medieval maces, lay on the ground in what looked to be the aftermath of a long and arduous battle. Death is inside the bones, wrote Neruda, like a barking where there are no dogs. I kept my distance. Behind me, my father was on his knees by the hospital bed. I couldn’t tell if he was praying. On the wall, his shadow leaned slightly forward. As if wanting to comfort but hesitating to intrude. 

*****


Eve says her stroke in 2013 “changed my view of myself.” She wrote a wonderful essay about it in the Globe and Mail, which you may find of interest. Her website is here.

Let’s look at one more poem from The Startled Heart:


A starling with no feet
eats at my table: a few crumbs, dried cranberries.

Where does it get me,
my foolish pity?

Intentional or not, you stepped
in death's way.

A bone-white edge, the near perfect
fit of broken things.

Too late for lessons now. A blackbird spoke
because you asked.

It's hope that does me in: the place
the voice breaks.

What's left? A kind of grace:
a perilous landing.


As we can see, this poet knows much about death and dying, which is also to know a great deal about life and living. We hope you enjoyed these offerings.


Material shared in 'I Wish I'd Written This' is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings remain the property of the copyright owners, usually their authors.


13 comments:

  1. Her work is incredibly moving.

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  2. It is, isn't it, Kelli? You would love In the Slender Margin. I have read it more than once.

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  3. Oh wow that first poem blew me away as I felt myself there in those words...amazing work!

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  4. What a wonderful poem. She really knew in depth about the language of birds...I never thought of how the sounds would be related to death, but it does make sense. Her book The Slender Margin sounds like it would be good as well. I like the details of the poet's wife you included as well, Sherry! She is almost your neighbor.

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  5. Yes, she lives not far away and is a friend of another wonderful poet, my friend Christine Lowther, whose work I will feature here one day soon.

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  6. Lovely, Sherry! I would have had no idea this marvellous poet existed if not for this post. I am also intrigued by her book on dying with that wonderful title. Will definitely be hunting up more of her work!

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  7. "each morning, and one must rise out of bed
    although the desire to do so is gone and the grey light"

    Lover of dawn and bird songs. Thes is my favourite lines from Language of Birds

    Thank you Sherry for this feature

    Much🌼love

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  8. Eve has seen this post and says she is pleased and honoured to be featured, and that she is impressed with our site. Yay! That makes me happy.

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  9. I'm so pleased you introduced me to Eve's poetry, Sherry. I too love poetry about birds and these poems are wonderful. I especially love 'The Language of Birds' and was immediately taken by the opening lines and the the idea of birds
    '...confessing a fear
    of heights, remembering days atop
    the hemlock and the uneasy alliance of
    thin branch beneath feet'.
    Eve obviously enjoys observing birds, she writes about them so lovingly:
    'and one must rise out of bed
    although the desire to do so is gone and the grey light
    falling through the window touches, briefly,
    a sadness that lives inside all that one is,
    in order to interpret the language of birds'.

    I will most certainly look out for her books.

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  10. Thank you, Sherry. Reading this post like having vivifying shower. So many memories touched... Glad, come by. 'Quarrels' and 'Slender Margin' on my reading list now.

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  11. Thank you Sherry. I enjoyed learning about Eve Joseph. A wonderful poet.

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  12. A wonderful post, Sherry. Thank you for this introduction to a fascinating writer. There is a delicacy in the construction and rendering of Eve's pieces, that - for me - is both mesmerizing and haunting. I love her poetry!

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  13. Thank you so much for sharing this. What a reserve of grace she must have to be able to write like this and work as she does.

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