Tag Archives: poems

On Bluebirds and Bluebirds

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.

Bluebird.

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.

Bluebird.

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.

Bluebird.

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.

Bluebird.

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.

Bluebird.

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.

Bluebird.

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.

Bluebird!

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.

“Do you?”

 

The Languages I Speak

by Jenny Yang Cropp

I grew up in a small city in the southwestern corner of Oklahoma, not too far from the Texas border. I say things like “yall” and “fixing to,” and, when I’m not thinking too much about it, I have a fairly pronounced accent. After my parents’ divorce, I was raised by my dad and his family, Oklahomans by way of Colorado and then Texas, with a mixed heritage of mostly Irish, English, and German.

When I was in high school in the early 1990s, the option to choose “two or more races” did not exist on any form I had ever filled out. I often had to alternate between white, like my dad, and Korean, like my mom, though back then it probably said Oriental or some such nonsense.

I don’t speak Korean. I’m not sure if I ever did. My mother left when I was two, and by the time I realized what I was missing, when I could finally ask her to teach me, she said it was too hard and too late. There weren’t a lot of Korean language classes in Oklahoma, either, so I had to let it go. There are many things I have learned and will learn, but Korean won’t be one of them. I know that about myself.

It has been, however, a sticking point for other people, a litmus test for how Korean I was or wasn’t. There’s this false assumption that I had a choice and that I rejected my mother’s language, but I had about as much control over that as I have over how people judge me for it. Still, it’s hard not to be ashamed, not to hold my mother’s language in my mouth and feel as if my tongue was not made for it, as if her words do not belong to me.

Things have changed considerably since I was in high school. The 2000 Census gave me a new box to mark. There’s a growing field of scholarship, with books and conferences, even an academic journal about multiracial identity and experience. Every week there are new articles to scroll through on my Facebook feed, most recently an NPR piece about the terms we use to describe ourselves. A conversation is happening, and it’s affirming and exciting.

But when I needed it the most, it didn’t really exist. The few books or articles never entered my tiny, pre-internet bubble of life in Oklahoma. Believe me when I say I was looking. I was the kid who checked out 14 novels each time we went to the public library, one for each day until we’d return. My dad once accused me of being on drugs because I stayed up all night, night after night, preferring to read than to function. I was driven, and I was trying to find something.

Although now I see reading as a way into other people’s perspectives, back then I wanted mainly to see myself in someone else’s words. That would have been proof that my experience was valid, that there was a word for this thing I was living through but couldn’t articulate for myself. I might not need that much validation these days, but that’s still how I process my life. I need it in a story or a poem to wrap my head around it.

I was thirty-two when I found Jon Pineda’s Birthmark, a collection of poems about multiracial identity, about loss of language, about a distant parent, and for the first time I saw my own ambivalence laid bare. I’ve read a lot of other things since then that explore the same ideas, but this was the first and most powerful. It’s the one that I return to each time something happens to remind me that progress is glacier-like, and there are still things I struggle to say about my own experiences.

The collection opens with “Matamis.” The speaker is on a beach with his father, sharing an orange, and thinking about the word “sweet” in English and “matamis” in Tagalog:

I remember thinking, in Tagalog,
the word matamis is sweet in English,
though I did not say it for fear
of mispronouncing the language.

What I love is the ambiguity of meaning here. The speaker could be thinking that the Tagalog word matamis means the same as the word sweet in English, and what he fears is to mispronounce the word matamis in front of his father. Simultaneously, you can reinterpret the syntax to mean that the speaker is thinking in the language of Tagalog, and perhaps it is the word sweet he is unsure of and afraid to say aloud. Maybe it is English he’s uncomfortable with. The syntactical blurring in those lines raises questions that are answered in the last stanza with silence, with the speaker’s choice to instead say nothing:

Instead, I finished the fruit & offered
nothing except my silence, & my father,
who pried apart another piece, breaking
the globe in two, offered me half.
Meaning everything.

He refuses, in that moment, to choose one language (and, arguably, one identity) over the other, and this is contrasted with a moment of bonding between father and son. The orange becomes a “globe,” symbolic of the space they inhabit, and it is split in half by the father. This gesture, the handing of half an orange to the son, resonates on multiple levels, suggesting issues of racial, cultural, familial, and emotional inheritance. The final line, “Meaning everything,” is separated from the previous sentence by both a period and a line break. It is also a fragment. What means everything? The gesture, the silence, the symbolic orange, or its halving? All of it. They can’t be untwined. Language and love and identity are all wrapped up in this moment.

The summer before eighth grade, I went to visit my mother in Queens. She lived in a Korean enclave where the signs were in Hangul and the kids working at the frozen yogurt shop laughed my brother and me out of the store when we tried to order in English. It was also one of the few times that my mother’s mother was around, so I was confronted with my inability to speak Korean both inside and outside the home.

I knew from stories that she had carried me on her back the first year of my life, but I didn’t remember her. She wouldn’t let your feet touch the ground, my other grandmother liked to say, chuckling both at the tenderness and the cultural difference. That story made me feel deeply connected to this woman whose words I could hear but not understand. She spoke, instead, in the universal language of grandmothers. She held my hand a lot, or she touched my head, smoothing the same hair that she used to fluff when I was a baby so no one would think I was a boy. She even slipped me money when my mother wasn’t looking.

Pineda’s poems often deal with childhood memories: a fight with a group of boys, a swimming lesson, a boxing match attended by father and son. Whatever the context, there is a longing for connection. The boy he beats looks as if he could be the speaker’s brother. The lost language and lost father are the edges of the pool towards which he swims. Even the boxing match, a metaphor for the father/son relationship, is an opportunity to highlight a shared moment of enjoyment between rounds. When so much of identity is rooted in belonging, the desire to connect is everything.

The title poem, “Birthmark,” is a prose poem in third-person. The speaker is in bed with his lover, and he focuses on and touches several small birthmarks on her thigh which remind him of the Philippines in terms of their shape and pattern. This provides a metaphor for the speaker’s sense of identity as a connection to a “place he has never been” and “a family he wants to touch, though something about it all is untouchable, like love, balanced between desire & longing.” In the same way that you can never fully know or understand someone else’s experiences and never completely merge with another human being in the sentimental “two become one” notion of romance, the speaker can never fully access the experience of a Filipino identity. Despite this recognition, however, his desire to access that experience brings him close enough to it, as close as he can get “to this place that seems so foreign, so much a part of him that for a moment, he cannot help it, he feels whole.” Part of his sense of identity, then, lies in his alienation or separation from the Filipino community. He also evokes the incompleteness that accompanies this experience. Here, in this moment of trying to connect, he has a feeling of wholeness or completeness, but it’s a passing feeling, and one that “he cannot help,” as if he is reluctant to let himself feel that way.

My favorite line in the book, from the poem “In the Romance of Grief,” is this: “Perhaps this world survives its losses/through its forgetting.” That letting go, that willingness to be silent, to forget, could be seen as the easy answer, but it’s not. It’s the hardest thing we can do. Rather than attempt to recover what has been lost, the speaker strives toward acceptance of that loss and incorporates it into his sense of identity.

At a job interview last year, a woman interrogated me for what felt like an awkward eternity. She wanted to know why my bio said Korean American, and why not just American, because her nieces are half Korean, the mother is Korean, but they just think of themselves as American, and well, do I speak the language? Her disappointment in me was palpable, and since my face betrays every emotion, I’m pretty sure I involuntarily cringed.

I gave my usual reply, that I have learned how to say hello and thank you and enough foods to order from a menu. I didn’t tell her about that summer with my grandmother, though, when I learned the only two Korean words that I don’t have to look up just to reassure myself I got them right. Because we often had to be buzzed into the building, she taught us to answer her yoboseyo with yoboseyo halmoni so she would know it was us. She went back to Korea not too long after that, and I didn’t see her again for sixteen years. When I did see her, she pointed to herself and said halmoni so I would remember, and then she hugged me and held my hand and fed me. I never had to say a word.