New Rivers Press 2010
Reviewed by Amy Lou Jenkins
B.J. Best claims he is not an avid bird watcher, yet the author photo on the back cover of Birds of Wisconsin depicts the poet in a wooded setting wearing a canvas fedora that is perfectly suited to an aviary expedition. So, by virtue of a book of poems about birds and his adorned noggin, let’s call him a bird-watching devotee anyway.
Best carries no binoculars to identify nuanced coloration of the migrating warblers; he hunches over no microscope to inspect graveled gizzards. He observes birds through the lens of Owen Gromme’s (1896-1991) life. Gromme, painter and artist, outdoorsman, environmentalist, curator of birds and mammals at the Milwaukee Public Museum (including taxidermy duties) is the renowned illustrator and author of Birds of Wisconsin (1963), one of the first books detailing birdlife in the state. Anyone who studies Gromme is going to see a lot of birds.
Best’s poems sharpen and blur. Divided into three parts, Birds of Wisconsin pulls lines of resonance through the legacies of Gromme and from the lives and landscapes of the Midwest. We move through facts as detailed as a dissected gullet and as boundless as flight itself.
Part one, Instructions on Flying, offers an experiential draw to winged wilderness. The opening poem, titled “owen gromme as a child watched canada geese staging,” begins:
they were the reason i quit high school:
to muck about the bottom of the lake,
hushed in the rushes and waiting for wings […]
In the poem “junco,” four brief lines in length, the unsentimental solid grayness of Wisconsin’s winter proffers a comforting structure of harmony to implied landscapes and bird imagery: “broken sleep / swept across the slate-colored morning / the husk of a sunflower seed / in the snow.”
Part two, The Prayers of Birds, gifts birds with personified introspection and the occasional well-timed wink or knife through the heart. “The Prayer of the Common Pigeon” begins with the line, “Forgive me, I have defiled yet another city statue,” and ends with, “I have forgotten what it is to be bird.”
Part three, Instructions on Landing, weaves through actual and supposed events and moments in Gromme’s life. “Bird Dissection,” from part one, is repeated and morphed in part three. We see through the lenses of Best and Gromme as they slice, inspect, and lean close: “You open a nuthatch call to a piff of spores, and are / now concerned they seed in your lungs: // Record your findings on ruled paper, black ink.”
The counterintuitivity in the final poem, “owen gromme lies down and accepts the finality of it all,” which riffs on Gromme’s claim that he has never painted a bird that satisfied him, explodes our passion for the ephemeral life. Best injects us with thoughts and glimpses that cannot be captured within rhetoric.
Readers don’t have to be steeped in understanding of Gromme, birds, or poetic theory to enjoy this themed collection. Best will woo you. These poems open heavy doors. Don your bird-watching hat or not, but do journey with Best through Birds of Wisconsin.
Amy Lou Jenkins BSN MFA is the author of the award-winning essay collection, Every Natural Fact. She holds an MFA in Literature and Writing from Bennington College. Unless it’s so cold it hurts, she would rather be outside.