Competing Impulses: Joseph P. Wood on Anna Journey’s If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting

If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting, Anna Journey, University of Georgia Press, 2009

If American poetry, as many critics have posited, is still wrestling with the Modernists, then one major conversation that has continued for nearly a century is how is to present the self and its inner-workings. All one needs to do is Google “School of Quietude” to witness a Dead Sea Scroll-length argument between avant-garde aesthetes and our more “mainstream” poets who repeatedly emphasize rhetorical and narrative clarity. The former group accuses the latter of dumbing down poetry by prescribing meaning and thus limiting a poem’s possibility. The latter group accuses the former of writing poetry so impenetrable that all a reader is left with is musically-informed nonsense. Both accusations imply the other camp creates art that takes no risk and that struts a received, superficial intellect. Both camps claim their writers are the ones putting themselves on the line, pushing an artistic vision that challenges both artist and audience.

But who these days is the avant and who is the mainstream? As convenient as it would be to place writers into discrete aesthetic groups, it is a small percentage of poets who bicker on internet comment threads and present themselves as uniform ideologues. More common, writers today quietly scavenge all over the poetic map and exhibit an “everything-but-the-kitchen sink” mentality when making their art. When done well, this approach results in work that feels both located in past traditions—albeit sometimes contradictory ones—and yet is entirely fresh in its idiom and intellect. One such writer embodying this democratic spirit is the up-and-coming Anna Journey, whose first book of poems If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting was selected for the National Poetry Series by Thomas Lux and was published University of Georgia Press. Journey’s book is one chock full of competing impulses: she blends readily accessible diction with syntactical obfuscation; she fuses overt rhetorical meditation into narratives that employ non-linear associative shifts; she paints landscapes that are one moment luscious and the next filled with spirits and carrion. In short, this astoundingly well-crafted collection pulls the reader through a maze of disparate landscapes and voices that strive to arrive at rhetorical and lyrical grandeur, to reveal a bared and vulnerable soul.

The book builds and hinges on a series of repeated images: floral, ornithological, bodily, and stratospheric. Journey’s genius lies in how these systems tonally and emotionally evolve over the course of the book and over the course of individual poems. In the collection’s first section, for instance, the poem, “A Rabbit Must Be Walking”, starts us on this edible tidbit:

To swallow a chicken heart whole in its glue-skinned
pericardium is to believe the pickled chill

on the way down is love. That’s why I shuddered
for no reason and knew

a rabbit must be walking on my grave—its sick
cotton a white flag, a peony. Who would believe it?

The sonic patterning in the first stanza is gluey and chewy as the imagery itself. Thus, what a masterful use of line and stanza break to launch us into a treaty on love, only then to move us to a rabbit walking on the speaker’s grave? This poem—like most in this collection—has these brilliant associative shifts from sentence to sentence, or even from phrase to phrase. Yet, in this same poem, only two stanzas later, the pace slows down, and the reader is led squarely into the speaker’s autobiography:

I believed myself at thirteen

cursed by my read hair, cursed as my aunt’s
one derelict rose—varicose coral

while the rest of the bush grew white as my scalp
under lemon juice, peroxide. My hair bleaching…

And then the poem launches skyward into a meditation on the moon. This poem—all her poems—appears the child of parents who would most certainly be divorced by now. On one hand, I see the Confessionalist-inspired work of 1980’s memory narrative—Levis, Olds, Tess Gallagher—except Journey is less burdened by narrative convention. On the other hand, I see the play of the New York School or even Lang Po, except I sense that Journey sees the speaker as more than just a whimsical or philosophical construct.

No, at the end of the day, Journey is a deadly serious poet, wanting to startle and even disturb, especially in the book’s third section where ghosts and devils enter and work over the speaker’s consciousness. Here, miscarried sisters are owls, the devil becomes a lover, or in “Elegy: I Pass by the Erotic Bakery”, a rumination that begins with “tits of lemon meringue” quickly moves into descriptions of her dead grandfather:

in the window that day
looked at first like breasts, then more like the paws of my didn’t

gnaw off his face. I’ve heard it happens. I’d like to ask the pastry chef

if his vision of whipped
egg whites and sugar meant he saw, in a dream, that mangled paw

pressed to my grandfather’s chest.
I know my grandfather

died alone, with the tv on. I need to know
he kept his face that day, in the green armchair…

Eventually the poem turns its attention to birds nervous in flight before returning back to the breasts now “caved in” and the speaker’s licking her lips and comparing herself to Christ. Let’s face it: it is a bit unnerving to think of one’s own sense of sexual identity in comparison to the death of a grandparent, but somehow, I’m not really that shaken up—and I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. In fact, as the collection progresses, the reader comes to see the work is almost so perfectly constructed—the poems’ scopes pinpoint accurate, language and metaphor highly stylized and systematic—that the poems over time feel more and more rhetorically calculated and less and less urgent.

Moreover, the book mildly suffers from two distinct tics. First, the writer overly relies on interrogatives, usually inserted into the middle of poems. They are meant to be transition and/or self-commentary, but over time, their tones and functions become redundant. Second, almost all poems end with a gesture toward a summative lyrical drama, as if some part of the human spirit was being unearthed, some great experiential truth revealed. At some point, I just wanted the poems—amazingly crafted as they were—to find a different gear, either go quieter and crazier and in the process, feel more intuitively constructed. The downside of playing the same prosodic card: what initially feels like an active imagination can over time turn into unintentional self-imitation. Perhaps the risk for the writer is not located on what is or is not revealed, what aesthetic guide is or is not employed. Rather, risk might be as simple as once a form or strategy is brought into the writer’s full conscience ceases to be elusive, that form or strategy should be modified—or better yet, abandoned.