Criticism & Features



By Rigoberto Gonzalez

Birdwatching in Wartime, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2009.

Jeffrey Thomson is the author of three previous collections of poetry. An Associate Professor of creative writing at the University of Maine, Farmington, he has won fellowships from the NEA and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. He was recently named the 2008 Individual Arts Fellow in the Literary Arts by the Maine Arts Commission.

The title of this book gives the reader an immediate arresting image, one that gestures toward disruption and paradox. It’s like those lines in the poem “Twin”: “both/ at once: love and its failure, metaphor/ and madness, youth and age with/ its orchestra of sighs, the leaves/ streaming through the storm-rich dark/ and the mess they cause in the gutter.” There are many such moments in the pages of this collection, from the farmer with the laptop and his “herd of data” to the urban elephants with “gray Walt Whitman eyes.” What informs the tensions of this imagery and how does it connect to the various landscapes you write about in Birdwatching in Wartime?  

Thank you for noticing that—it’s a key element to the book as you suggest.  I was very conscious, as I was writing this book and thinking about the places where these the poems take place, that I was what I was working toward was an exploration of ineffable experience in the world, a feeling of being welcome and estranged at the same time from these remarkable landscapes.  That is a part of what is happening.  At the same time, I didn’t want the nature poems in this books to be soft and cuddly, to be the poetry of epiphany and understanding.  Nature is too complex for that, and too dangerous (as the opening poem, in which I nearly die in the Amazon from being stung by a hive of wasps, suggests).  So the poems keep coming back to these paradoxes—beauty and violence, nature and culture, language and experience—and the tension between these opposites hopefully keeps the poems alive and moving outward, rather than tending inward toward closure.

South America is one of the muses in Birdwatching in Wartime: the flora and fauna of the Amazon, the earthquakes of Cuzco, Jorge Luis Borges, and even Elizabeth Bishop, a long-time resident of Brazil, prompts more than one poetic response. In this, your fourth book of poetry, how has your work changed since you began translating from the Spanish? Who do you translate and how has that process informed your own sensibilities and relationship to subject matter, imagery and language?

The landscapes of the new world tropics, as you say, are fundamental to this book.  The rainforests and cultures of the South and Central America are so rich, multi-layered (multi-textual even) that the layering of language and image in the book comes right out of my experience trying to decode and understand those places and to find a place to speak from within them.  A number of poems speak directly to this linguistic and imagistic complexity (“the tri-color of exile”) and that same effort comes to life in the act of translation. 

I started off translating the Spanish poet Félix Grande, a major poet for much of the Spanish-speaking world who remains mostly unknown in the US, and I continue to work on his poems. But recently I began a new project, translating the poems of a self-taught Cuban poet named Juan Carlos Flores (my translation of his book Different Ways to Dig a Tunnel is forthcoming in the fall from Green Integer).  The act of translating, in that it is an attempt to make something worthwhile in English that already exists in another language and another place, echoes my work with the landscapes and cultures of South America.  To make of the experience of that other thing, whether it is a place or a poem, means you have to honor its existence in that other world but you also need to be willing to change it, to manipulate it into something that works in English, something that works aesthetically.  Understanding that tension, so fundamental to translation, helped me enormously when working on the poems in this book.

The two long poems in the book are “Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge,” inspired by a passage by Borges, and “Blind Desire,” which is a crown of three-tercet poems that doesn’t reveal the identities of the lovers until the very end. Both poems demand plenty of patience. With the former poem, the constant shifting of structure and tone keeps the reader going; with the latter, it’s the short lengths and the promise of a revelation. But part 10 of the first poem is telling: “This encyclopedia of articulate nothing,/ taxonomy of damage, library of sand…I could write anything…and you’d believe it.” It’s a jarring moment that gives the reader pause: in this vast appreciation of beauty and language, of lengthy lists of the nomenclature of nature, empty or lifeless somehow because it’s getting committed to print not memory or experience? Are you returning to the book’s title and possibly project: humanity distracted by conflict and artifice?

That moment you note is a direct nod to Borges (particularly the “library of sand” example) but that section points in several other directions at the same time.  The themes that run through the “Celestial Emporium” sequence—the fungibility of language and experience, the very idea of a static Linnean taxonomy, extinction, and violence—point me toward an answer to your question.  And, no, I don’t see that moment pointing toward emptiness at all.  As I see it, that poem is partially written in the voice of a “scribe” of some sort, sent to fill out the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge for the Emperor of section 1.  By the time he gets to the tenth poem, he has moved through so many modes and voices and examples that he realizes that the natural world, in essence, contains no finishing point, no end to its possibilities.  The world is richer than his imagination, but, paradoxically, this very limitation frees him to imagine more fully and richly the contours of the world he was sent out to catalogue.  That is the power of the poet.

Similarly, the power of the poem is the power to point outward from the mind of the creator into the physical and social world, into the larger world of narrative and image, a world that, like the Celestial Emporium, is always in flux and growing.  Knowledge (like art) is not and cannot be static; it needs to move and grow and change if it is to stay alive.  But, as you suggest, growth and change are violent forces and come at a cost.

BONUS QUESTION: What recent small press title do you recommend to Critical Mass readers?

Rough Cradle, by Betsy Sholl (Alice James Books, 2009)