Paige Ackerson-Kiely on Birds and Survival

H. L. Hix: I’m interested in the mediating presence of birds here.  “This Landscape of Forest” (18) ends “Your dark limbs laden with my favorite birds.  Their happy song I am trying to make my way toward.”  Then, later in the book, “Anorgasmia” (72) ends “Sometimes a bird sings in my chest. / I hold my breath.  I squeeze your throat.”  In both cases, the bird is inside one person or another, and in neither case does the speaker herself sing.  Why this unusual “placement” of the birds, this particular relationship to singing?


Paige Ackerson-Kiely: Thank you for your question!


I feel a little sheepish answering (the sheep is often in this body, but I have learned well to shepherd) what with the whole “Put A Bird On It” parody/skit from Portlandia. Oh, Harvey, there are so many things to just get over.


I live within walking distance of the Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area—3000 acres of wetlands, forest and agricultural fields—a breeding ground for endangered birds (Osprey, Upland Sandpiper, Black Tern) and an active migratory stop-over for many species. The Snow Geese seem to attract a lot of binoculars.


My relationship with birds is pretty casual. They aren’t really an event for me. I get to see eagles, owls, geese and various herons regularly. I was trained many years ago in raptor rescue, and have transported downed birds to rehabilitation centers, though I have mixed feelings about this practice.


All this to say, the birds in these poems are pretty non-specific, and really just a device to illustrate the speaker’s inability to sing. I’ve used these birds—a fairly American practice—we use animals all the time in cruel and off-hand ways.  I am a minister of my culture insofar as I, too, rely on animals to do my bidding, in my home, on my plate, in my poems. Who doesn’t know, in the back of the brain, that Nightingales shelter secret lovers, owls hoot disappointment and impending death, eagles herald courage and strength? It is not something I am particularly proud of, hell, who is proud of a cycle of subjugation? We may derive imagined ‘gifts’ from promoting this hierarchy, this speciesism, but in the end even the symbols and archetypes we ascribe to the ‘other’ are a form of abuse. I’ve been abused and you’ve been abused, and on a very reductive level, that propagates all of our actions. It’s why I can’t stop eating flesh or thinking the apparition of birds in a poem I write means something greater. Because at one time or another, when I was laid out, it should have meant something to the one who put me there. I have to think it did. This is what we call ‘survival.’ Or what I call it. What I am calling it for now, until I learn something new, hopefully tomorrow. As the crow flies.


Of course, when I wrote these lines, they meant the world to me. It is fleeting, to have the world mean something, but what else is there? I know it sounds super elementary, but I am asking this for real! I ask this of every poem I encounter, my own, or others.


The ‘voice’ of many poems in this book longs to sing, but cannot. She is aware of the finitude of joy and pleasure (expressed in both of these poems as birdsong), so chooses instead the lasting promise of the potential of pleasure (knowledge of the proximity of song, the song’s pre-escape). In Anorgasmia, she is afraid that once the bird is let from the chest it will never be able to be caged again, and thus, if she experiences pleasure, she will lose the particulars of that pleasure forever. She only wants to contain the magnificent. Who doesn’t. I chose that bird in a lazy way. It is easy to visualize it flapping about in the chest’s delicate bone cage. The heart flutters; birds flutter. In This Landscape of Forest, she imagines the birdsong contained in the arms of an ideal lover she struggles to make her way toward. I like to think she will, eventually. In both cases. She’ll find those birds, or set them free. Then they return, over and over again, whether they want to or not.



Paige Ackerson-Kiely.  My Love Is a Dead Arctic Explorer.  Ahsahta Press, 2012.



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