by Gary Dop
Last summer, I spent two weeks with a group of talented high school writers in Nebraska. They gave me a small bluebird figurine as a parting gift. It sits, pleasant and bright, in a hanging planter on my porch.
I have a special relationship with bluebird. That statement could be nature driven, but it is not. My bluebirdian impulse is not toward the beasts that flitter about in the yard or the fake one in my planter—nor is it the image of a bird removed from nature and reassembled in words. It’s not even the lovely sound of the word: Bluebird.
Sorry, this is all getting a bit confusing.
I do like the bright blue feathers and the alliterative pop of the plosive b’s in bluebird. Bluebird. But I confess, that’s just me showing off the word plosive, which makes me feel smart, but I had to look it up a moment ago to be sure of myself. Sad, I know.
What I really love—here comes the real confession—is Charles Bukowski reading his poem “Bluebird.” You probably know the poem. If not, you should.
I’m not much of a Bukowski fan—I constantly want to help him edit his poems. I’m sure this reflects a deep problem with my inner bluebird, but that’s precisely what Bukowski would like. His whole poem is the artist grappling with his interior world—his soul, his spirit, his essence—his bluebird.
When I hear Bukowski reading the poem, I can’t help but process my own insecurities and fears. For me, hearing him read “Bluebird” is the literary equivalent of heroin…but a kind of heroin that’s heathly and life giving. Forgive me, that’s confusing, as well.
Somewhere in YouTubeland, the zeroes and ones can prove that I have listened to Bukowski read “Bluebird” more than any other video, just ahead of my second most subscribed video, the Squatty Potty commercial, which I have no business mentioning here, but if we have progressed anywhere in the 21st century, it’s in allowing each other our unexplained obsessions.
My Bukowski bluebird obsession is the stuff of the literary life. These inspired moments in art lift us out of our humdrum stroll and into our lives, which long for flight, for song.
That’s a tad melodramatic, I know, but it’s better than what I wanted to write: “I am often a bluebird critical of his own song.” See, I knew you’d think it was too much, at least that’s what my wife said you would think when she read an earlier draft.
When you hear the audio of Bukowski, who has the opposite of a birdlike voice, you’re sure that he reads the poem too quickly. So it seems at first, but after the tenth or two-hundredth time, you feel his croaky cadence, and when the poem arrives at its last few lines, he slows down. It’s that final utterance, where the poem turns suddenly outward, away from Bukowski and his tragic bluebird: “…it’s nice enough to / make a man / weep. But I don’t / weep, do you?”
I do. I weep, but I don’t weep enough. I’m not Charles Bukowski—thank God—but I know that in my own difficulties, the bluebird makes sense to me.
I have my better moments when I am able to create and consume that which sustains my own uneven, lovely song. For this reason, I return regularly to Bukowski’s recitation. It’s still inspiring, and I need inspiration.
The writer knows to dig, to push, to press, to explore, to hunt, and to rest and run in it all. When something heightens my senses, I push myself off its cliff, seeing what new crevice of earth I can crash upon.
This afternoon, a few minutes after listening to “Bluebird” and googling “bluebirds,” I followed an impulse: I called the North American Bluebird Society Hotline. Yes, that’s a thing.
Fittingly, when I tried their number, which I was so sure would help connect me with my inner bluebird, I discovered that the number had been disconnected.
This seems symbolic, I know.
Pardon me while I mix metaphors: when you jump off the bluebird cliff, you don’t stop when the number has been disconnected.
I kept flying or falling—whatever.
Soon enough, I found the number for a representative of the Virginia Bluebird Society—also a thing.
I wanted to open my call to Anne Little, a longtime advocate for bluebirds, by reading the poem:
Anne, in her friendly voice, would say, “Hello?”
And I’d do my best burly Bukowski: “There’s a bluebird in my heart and it wants to get out.”
Unfortunately, I lacked the pluckiness for that opener. Instead, I begin with my fallback, a Midwestern apologetic tone:
Anne said, “Hello?”
I said, “Hi, my name’s Gary Dop. I’m a professor up the road at Randolph College. I have a bit of a strange question for you.”
Anne and I had a lovely conversation about Bukowski’s poem and the work of the Virginia Bluebird Society. She told me that the purpose of the Society, which has 500 members, is “more practical and educational” than the North American Bluebird Society.
I said, “You Virginia folks also have a way cooler website.” She didn’t respond to that.
Instead, she told me about the society’s work installing bluebird boxes—yep, a thing, a highly symbolic thing. Anne Little of Fredricksburg, VA, said she especially enjoys fitting bluebird boxes with cameras so people can watch the birds.
I held back my first thoughts: “Anne, do you really think people want to watch bluebirds in a box? I understand Pandas and Eagles, but bluebirds? C’mon, Anne.”
The bluebird boxes are sometimes installed near schools and the students can watch on their computers whenever they like or the principal can get on the intercom and announce that the bluebirds are hatching. Anne said, “Sometimes the whole school will stop what they are doing to watch the bluebirds hatch.” This image makes sense to me. I think of my daughters smiling at their screens, watching bluebirds hatch. I can’t escape linking Bukowski’s symbolic fledgling bluebird with the literal bluebirds hatching in Anne Little’s camera and the metaphoric bluebirds thriving in the elementary kids of Fredericksburg.
The mind keeps connecting pieces when Anne explains that the boxes must be properly installed so snakes or the invasive house sparrow won’t take over. I don’t tell her that I know some writers who have a bluebird box with a snake inside. Instead, I wonder if my own bluebird is sometimes a house sparrow. I don’t really know what that means, but it worries me.
At this point, I’m fully aware that I’m destroying the purpose and potency of the “Bluebird.” Somewhere, Bukowski’s having a celestial whiskey and quite proud of me.
When Anne first moved, many years ago, from downtown San Francisco, she was surprised to see a bluebird in her backyard. She says that she remembers thinking, “Wow. I want that bird to hang around.” Together with the over 500 members of the Virginia Bluebird Society, Anne and friends placed over 10,000 bluebird boxes in Virginia.
10,000! I wanted to ask Anne if she thought it was time that the society moved on to help some other bird, but I know very little about these things.
She asked me if she could publish Bukowski’s poem, which she hadn’t yet heard, in her newsletter, and I said, “You’ll have to get permission from whoever owns the rights to “Bluebird,” which seemed so ugly to say. I told her she could probably put a link to the poem, but that seemed even uglier. I think Bukowski would be happy to have Anne publish the poem in the Virginia Bluebird Society newsletter, but maybe it’s best not to confuse the 500 members with Bukowski’s commentary on his own bluebird—“I haven’t quite let him / die…”—which might not seem like bird advocacy.
I like to search for what I write, to let it find me as I pass through an idea or an image. I push the image, the idea, the moment—I called Anne Little because I believed I could encounter something of value in the inquiry. Anne, graciously, proved me right.
In the middle of writing this essay, just after I got off the phone with Anne, our college president, Brad Bateman, walked into my office, which isn’t a daily occurrence, as you can imagine. President Bateman’s a nice guy, don’t get me wrong, but I wasn’t expecting him. My untenured bluebird fluttered about, wondering if I’d unknowingly killed a student or worse, posted something offensive on twitter. It turns out, Bateman had a few questions about an unrelated concern, but when he asked what I was working on, I stumbled through an answer: “I’m writing an essay on art and Charles Bukowski’s “Bluebird” poem—or his reading of it—and I just called Anne Little of the Virginia Bluebird Society.”
He smiled. President Bateman’s an economist. I was hoping his smile wasn’t a calculation of my cost to the college.
Bateman, who arrived at the college the same year I did, said, “You know, one of the first things I bought when I moved into the President’s house was a bluebird box for the backyard.”
Apparently the whole world loves bluebirds.
Sitting in my office, in the world’s most embarrassingly squeaky chair, our college president then added that earlier in the day he had authorized the college to purchase 14 bluebird boxes.
I was suddenly certain that I was part of some elaborate prank that involved the FBI reading my internet activity and my essay drafts.
We talked about the poem and bluebirds. Bateman said that when his son was young the two of them had spent several years as active birders. His son had loved birds so much that he had taught himself to read with the Audubon bird guide. Studying the pictures of the birds and the words below, the boy would eventually say, “Bluebird. Dad, is b-l-u-e blue?”
I imagine Bateman in a suit and bowtie standing in the middle of a field in Iowa holding his son on his shoulders as the boy holds the field guide atop Bateman’s head and points out a swooping hawk in the sky. In the excitement of it all, Bateman’s son brushes his muddy shoes on the President’s suit. This image makes me smile, but I’m pulled back as Bateman adds that their birding together all happened in the years before his son got cancer.
In a few days, the board of the Virginia Bluebird Society will gather in Charlottesville, VA, and I like to think that during a coffee break between their serious meetings about, well, bluebird stuff, Anne will remember our conversation. Maybe she’ll laugh with her pals about the bizarre guy who called to tell her about a poem, and maybe, just maybe, a few of the birders she tells will get back to their hotel rooms that night and look up the poem, listening to a familiar song sung anew.
President Bateman, who left my squeaky office chair a few hours ago, sent me this email just now: “The Bukowski poem is beautiful. I’ve listened to it three times! I have to stop before my bluebird gets out.”
The students in Nebraska who gave me the little bluebird have no way of knowing how much joy I got in walking around the room and saying, over and over again, “There’s a bluebird in my heart and it wants to get out.” They may not know, but their bluebird knows.
On my front porch, the fake bluebird peeks out from behind pink flowers.
I’m thinking of adding a bluebird box to my office so I can mention it in my tenure file.
Writers are afforded the luxury of taking all things in at once: my bright, devoted students, the passion of Anne Little, a son learning to read birds, Bukowski’s pied beauty, 10,000 bluebird boxes, and my porch’s fake bluebird. It’s all Bluebird.
Maybe it never becomes a poem or a short story, but the search itself, it seems to me, is the stuff of a good life.
My fake bluebird may not fly or sing, but I do. When I’m feeling small, I take it all in, and I fly. I sing. That’s what I do.