Review: A New Collection of Poems From a Birder

Whirl is King: Poems From a Life List
By Brendan Galvin 
Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 2008

Years ago I attended a three-day shorebird identification workshop led by Pete Dunne at Cape May Bird Observatory. It was around this time that Pete had begun proselytizing for a new approach to birding called “GIS” – fighter pilot jargon for “general impression and shape” – the way that military pilots are trained to identify aircraft by their silhouette, shape, and how they are being flown, rather than by looking at insignia. Pete understood that good birders know a bird on a subconscious level before they even see the field marks. He was convinced that such skills could be taught by awakening a birder’s awareness of this innate facility and by convincing his students to expand their level of awareness and trust their intuitive faculties. Being afield with Pete and listening to his stream-of-consciousness patter had the rhythm of a poetry reading. He was trying to convey some essential quality of “birdiness” that would lead his students to trust information which comes from a different part of the brain. Pete’s birding Zen teaches that the intuitive parts of your brain convey information which can be at least as useful as the information which comes from the rational faculties. His approach makes people better birders and should make them more susceptible to metaphor and, by extension, poetry.

Birds make claims on our vision, hearing, intellect, imagination, and on our creativity. Birds demand intimacy in that they inspire us to express our experiences of them -- to express what we experience of their essential natures. As in all intimate relationships, we gain self-knowledge in the process. Generations of poets have labored to convey their intimate relationships with birds. Emily Dickenson, Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, A.R. Ammons, Amy Clampett, Gerald Stern – have all penned memorable poems expressing the essential nature of their experiences of birds. In doing so, they have taught us much about how to see the world, about intimacy, and about our connection to nature.

Brendan Galvin’s Whirl is King: Poems From a Life List is a splendid addition to the canon. Galvin is an established poet who has penned a National Book Award finalist. He also happens to be a birder. This collection of 43 poems is delightfully entertaining, literate, and full of the surprises one finds in things familiar. Although Galvin’s poems are about his intimate experiences of birds, they (like all good art) convey feelings, impressions, and a quintessential sense of “birdiness” (or “GIS”) shared by all birders. I enjoyed all the poems in this collection. One that stands out for me is "Great Blue":

around certain backwaters
like the ponds behind the oyster shacks,
I hope for a heron,

and sometimes I’m granted
that wood-silver,
crooked-stick, channel-marker effect
of the loosened neck,

and that silence, humped like
an overburden of experience,
the weight it hauls in flight
from river to pond above a highway

when I look up at the mere
abstract silhouette bird but am taken
by the dragged beat of wings

translucent at their tips,
and the cocked spurs trawled behind,
and have to swerve to hold the lane.

But I never expected it this morning,
Mother, on the wall of this room
you share with strangers:

The Egyptian sign for the generation
of life, its wisp of feather
hairlike off the nape, among the old
in their own humped solitudes.

Reason, that chain-store item,
can deny this forever, but that bird
shadows us, at key moments is there,

it’s gumped-up look guarding justice,
longevity, the journey
of the good and diligent soul.

Galvin is a first rate poet, whose powers of observation find expression in lyrical, witty, affecting language. The poems in this collection are thoughtful, entertaining, and very accessible.

I am always surprised when fellow birders confess to me that they don’t read poetry, because poetry seems to be the best way of cutting directly to the quintessence. I have, nevertheless, observed a stubborn resistance among our tribe. A resistance to the GIS method of birding. A resistance to poetry. A resistance to information gleaned from non-discursive thought. The resistance seems to come from our acculturated impatience, and from our insistence on “just the facts ma’am, just the facts.” “Just tell me how to recognize that bird.” “Why can’t a poet just come out and say it in plain language?” If you recognize this resistance in yourself, gentle reader, please consider that the human tribe has relied on myth and poetry for millennia longer than science and “just the facts.” Facts are worthless outside of the context of a story. If you are a member of the tribe who hasn’t yet learned to enjoy poetry, Brendan Galvin’s collection is a wonderful place to enter the stream. These poems will teach you something about birds, about your own experience of birds, and they might even inspire you to become a better birder. And, oh yes, they happen to be great fun.

Wayne Mones
February 15, 2009

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