Variations on a Theme of Birdsong

by Gerry LaFemina

One of the hardest things to think about in terms of revision beyond the first draft is seeing what’s possible outside the margins of what’s already written, which is to say not how to make the poem longer, tighter, musically  more compelling, but, rather, to explore the alternative poems running parallel to the original. What would the poem look like, I often wonder, if I had begun with a slightly different take on my triggering image?  Slight change to an initial word choice, a slight reframing of an image, can lead to extremely different end results.

Recently, I had the image of a bird sewing his song through the morning light, and as I often do, wondered where such a vision might take me. Then I remembered, that I have a “no birds” rule in effect right now (such moratoriums are ways to ensure that I don’t continue dipping into the familiar image bank), so I thought to use this as a teaching moment. How might this triggering image be transformed in various ways to develop multiple universes—multiple poems—based solely on the framing and language of the first line? All of the poems are titled “Before March” and none of them have been significantly revised beyond these initial re-framings; the goal is to get us to explore what possibilities might exist tracking beside the original.

 Before March

First songbirds of February
embroider cool mornings
with fine needles of their notes.

Sunlight burns the last of last week’s snow
into mist. The neighbor’s

two kids have begun throwing
a game of catch, the steady thump
of ball in glove
like the pulse of new desire.

This short lyric begins with a nurturing sensibility: embroider as a word choice comes complete with positive connotations; it’s a word we associate with a mother or grandmother, perhaps, and the poem fulfills that word’s promise by ending on hope. In the end, this version of the poem engages the familiar tropes of “spring” (birdsong, baseball, new love) in a lyrically imagistic way. Even the title emphasizes March over what it really means (February).

The second version of this poem plays on “needle” in a different way:

Before March

First birds of February
push the needles of their notes
through cold morning. They attack the feeder
out the window
then shit on the car’s hood.

No time to clean up.

Already salt on the fender eats away
at the metal. Tomorrow
the forecast is icy rain or sleet.

The needles, here, carry with negative connotations—they are things that pierce, things that hurt.  I’ve further emphasized this darker sensibility by having changed “songbirds” to the less chirpy “birds.” I could take this transformation further by choosing a type of bird, as in this line: “First grackles of February.” Just the sound of the word grackles with its guttural opening and its hard K sound would further establish a more negative sensibility to the poem.  Consider even the change of cool to cold for the modifier of “morning” as a way of creating an alternate reality from the first poem. Ditto, its relationship to the title has changed, emphasizing the winter implicit in the title.

A third version of the poem continues with another variation on the word needle, this one the tattooist’s tool.

Before March

The first songbirds of February
tattoo the images of their perfect mates
on the air which each note.

The neighbor’s windows are open,
Celine Dion singing My heart will go on

Then the garbage men arrive,
truck rumble silencing everything else
before carting away the thrown away
photo albums, the old notes,
all of yesterday’s refuse.

As birdsong is a way of attracting a mate, this poem begins with hope, with the synesthesia of song becoming visual.  As she is wont to do, Celine Dion changes things, makes the poem go dark (as if she could do anything else). I didn’t want her to dominate the poem, so I needed to pivot quickly away while simultaneously acknowledging that the song is one of heartache, of loss: it establishes something not in the other poems, a gesture of grief. This move to the garbage men led me to wonder what was being thrown out—and the poem then becomes about failed love, another type of “cold” working against the traditional associations of spring.

This version of the poem makes a similar linguistic move as the first version, repeating a word in a different way in quick succession: “the last of last week’s snow” is echoed in “carting away the thrown away.” Further, this last version plays on the dual meanings of “refuse.” In the end, this poem plays against the expectations established in the first lines, which seem to preview an attempt at nesting.

There are multiple other variations on this theme. Three more opening lines that establish possible poems look like this:

First songbirds of February
sew patches of melody over the morning’s holes…

***

February’s first birds purl their songs
into small flags they’ll unfurl over the nests they build
outside the bedroom window…

***

First birds of February pull the sutures of their songs
tight this morning, light bleeding
through the curtains…

Of course, there are numerous other potentialities, and each choice creates the poem we make but also creates the opportunity for an alternative. Here, the poems are all working as observational lyrics (deliberately so), but the potential for a more personal or more expansive mediation, a narrative, even a fractal exploration of birdsong or sewing or both are possible. The goal, here, is not a study of aesthetics, but rather of the possibilities beyond the initial draft that happens by reconceiving our triggers. Conscious choices allow us to say, “I’m in territory where I’ve been before” what happens if I choose to look at this in a slightly different way? What’s possible? It’s this feeling of possibility that is the excitement for me when an image beckons me to language.

Every poem, in the end, is about the poems we chose not to write, those series of parallel universes, alternate versions we chose either not to pursue or not to explore. Those are legitimate artistic choices. It’s important, though, to be aware that they exist.


 

Book Review: OBJECTS OF AFFECTION by Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough

Objects of Affection 
by Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough
Braddock Avenue Books, 2018
$13.00

Reviewed by Zoe Kovacs

Polish-born Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough has made a life out of translating, that fraught, “imperfect art which depends on what Czesław Miłosz called ‘the conscious acceptance of imperfect solutions.’” It’s the leveling of two languages and two cultures on ground foreign to each, at minimum a compromise and at most a deliberate marriage of the two. One might understand her debut collection of essays Objects of Affection as a reckoning or a theory of translation— a translation that extends far beyond the written word and into the realms of identity, memory, and what it means to be an immigrant. Through eighteen essays, the focuses of which span favorite authors, childhood memories, Poland’s history of war and communism, family, transforming nationalities, swimming, and even hairstyles, Hryniewicz-Yarbrough presents the reader with a lovely, complex reflection on what it means to bridge worlds.

One of Hryniewicz-Yarbrough’s greatest strength is undoubtedly her ability to weave many threads subtly through the varying subjects of each essay. In “Afloat,” for example, which is ostensibly about swimming, the author reflects on the lakes and pools of her childhood in Poland before transitioning to the Massachusetts pond where she now swims. With all the artistry of a poet (which Hryniewicz-Yarbrough repeatedly assures us she is not), she explains that “no other activity makes us enter an alien element the way swimming does,” echoing back her earlier meditations on immigration, on immersing herself in an environment unfamiliar to her and adopting unfamiliar language and customs in the process.

Objects of Affection is salient not only because it represents the oft-demonized perspective of an immigrant at this particular moment in history, but also because Hryniewicz-Yarbrough’s biographical essays function simultaneously as an invaluable firsthand account of Polish history. The reader gains so much insight from these pages about what it means to grow up in a country defined by its past of war, one where the threat of future turmoil lingers even during the calm. Echoes of the author’s upbringing among Polish communism and war-paranoia are unavoidably present in each essay. In “My War Zone,” Hryniewicz-Yarbrough recalls childhood games parodying Nazi invasions, and her youthful imaginings of America and Australia as impervious safe-spaces, which later transforms into a reflection on the effects of 9/11. Other essays—“In Zbigniew Herbert’s Garden,” “Objects of Affection,” “Our Daily Drink”—utilize a favorite childhood writer, the author’s love of antiques, and a discussion of beverages she used to drink in Poland to analyze her personal experiences of freedom and choice after moving from a communist country to a free market economy.

Hryniewicz-Yarbrough has lived always in the crossroads and the in-betweens of communism and capitalism, of the “old” and “new” Europe divided by the fall of the Iron Curtain, of Poland and America. Interpreting her beloved author Zbigniew Herbert, she writes of “otherness as something positive that allows the traveler to notice what natives can no longer see. … Otherness has two senses: [immigrants/travelers] are obviously ‘the other,’ but the world we encounter is also ‘the other.’” The author credits her “outsider” position—one that never fully goes away, no matter how long she has lived in the United States, no matter how long she has stood at the axis between English and Polish—for rendering her as uniquely external to all of the things about which she writes. This vantage point grants her the ability to evaluate them at a distance that those of more singular identities are unable to. In Objects of Affection, Hryniewicz-Yarbrough transposes that balancing act between seemingly contradictory identities and experiences into the written word, into a collection that is as treasured for its beauty in prose as for its insights. She has achieved, then, a most glorious act of translation, a reconciliation of complexities that speaks many mouths into one voice.