The Language of the Birds

1

A man saw a bird and found him beautiful. The bird had a song inside him, and feathers. Sometimes the man felt like the bird and sometimes the man felt like a stone—solid, inevitable—but mostly he felt like a bird, or that there was a bird inside him, or that something inside him was like a bird fluttering. This went on for a long time.


2

A man saw a bird and wanted to paint it. The problem, if there was one, was simply a problem with the question. Why paint a bird? Why do anything at all? Not how, because hows are easy—series or sequence, one foot after the other—but existentially why bother, what does it solve?

And just because you want to paint a bird, do actually paint a bird, it doesn’t mean you’ve accomplished anything. Who gets to measure the distance between experience and its representation? Who controls the lines of inquiry? We do. Anyone can.

Blackbird, he says. So be it, indexed and normative. But it isn’t a bird, it’s a man in a bird suit, blue shoulders instead of feathers, because he isn’t looking at a bird, real bird, as he paints, he is looking at his heart, which is impossible.

Unless his heart is a metaphor for his heart, as everything is a metaphor for itself, so that looking at the paint is like looking at a bird that isn’t there, with a song in its throat that you don’t want to hear but you paint anyway.

The hand is a voice that can sing what the voice will not, and the hand wants to do something useful. Sometimes, at night, in bed, before I fall asleep, I think about a poem I might write, someday, about my heart, says the heart.


3

They looked at the animals. They looked at the walls of the cave. This is earlier, these are different men. They painted in torchlight: red mostly, sometimes black—mammoth, lion, horse, bear—things on a wall, in profile or superimposed, dynamic and alert.

They weren’t animals but they looked like animals, enough like animals to make it confusing, meant something but the meaning was slippery: it wasn’t there but it remained, looked like the thing but wasn’t the thing—was a second thing, following a second set of rules—and it was too late: their power over it was no longer absolute.

What is alive and what isn’t and what should we do about it? Theories: about the nature of the thing. And of the soul. Because people die. The fear: that nothing survives. The greater fear: that something does.

The night sky is vast and wide.

They huddled closer, shoulder to shoulder, painted themselves in herds, all together and apart from the rest. They looked at the sky, and at the mud, and at their hands in the mud, and their dead friends in the mud. This went on for a long time.


4

To be a bird, or a flock of birds doing something together, one or many, starling or murmuration. To be a man on a hill, or all the men on all the hills, or half a man shivering in the flock of himself. These are some choices.

The night sky is vast and wide.

A man had two birds in his head—not in his throat, not in his chest—and the birds would sing all day never stopping. The man thought to himself, One of these birds is not my bird. The birds agreed.
 

More by Richard Siken

Detail of the Woods

I looked at all the trees and didn't know what to do.

A box made out of leaves.
What else was in the woods? A heart, closing. Nevertheless.

Everyone needs a place. It shouldn't be inside of someone else.
I kept my mind on the moon. Cold moon, long nights moon.

From the landscape: a sense of scale.
From the dead: a sense of scale.

I turned my back on the story. A sense of superiority.
Everything casts a shadow.

Your body told me in a dream it's never been afraid of anything.

Detail of the Hayfield

I followed myself for a long while, deep into the field.
Two heads full of garbage.

Our scope was larger than I realized,
which only made me that much more responsible.

Yellow, yellow, gold, and ocher.
We stopped. We held the field. We stood very still.

Everyone needs a place.

You need it for the moment you need it, then you bless it—
thank you soup, thank you flashlight

and move on. Who does this? No one.

Landscape with a Blur of Conquerors

To have a thought, there must be an object—
the field is empty, sloshed with gold, a hayfield thick
with sunshine. There must be an object so land
a man there, solid on his feet, on solid ground, in
a field fully flooded, enough light to see him clearly,

the light on his skin and bouncing off his skin.
He’s easy to desire since there’s not much to him,
vague and smeary in his ochers, in his umbers,
burning in the open field. Forget about his insides,
his plumbing and his furnaces, put a thing in his hand

and be done with it. No one wants to know what’s
in his head. It should be enough. To make something
beautiful should be enough. It isn’t. It should be.
The smear of his head—I paint it out, I paint it in
again. I ask it what it wants. I want to be a cornerstone,

says the head. Let’s kill something. Land a man in a
landscape and he’ll try to conquer it. Make him
handsome and you’re a fascist, make him ugly and
you’re saying nothing new. The conqueror suits up
and takes the field, his horse already painted in

beneath him. What do you do with a man like that?
While you are deciding, more men ride in. The hand
sings weapon. The mind says tool. The body swerves
in the service of the mind, which is evidence of
the mind but not actual proof. More conquerors.

They swarm the field and their painted flags unfurl.
Crown yourself with leaves and stake your claim
before something smears up the paint. I turned away
from darkness to see daylight, to see what would
happen. What happened? What does a man want?

Power. The men spread, the thought extends. I paint
them out, I paint them in again. A blur of forces.
Why take more than we need? Because we can.
Deep footprint, it leaves a hole. You’d break your
heart to make it bigger, so why not crack your skull

when the mind swells. A thought bigger than your
own head. Try it. Seriously. Cover more ground.
I thought of myself as a city and I licked my lips.
I thought of myself as a nation and I wrung my hands,
I put a thing in your hand. Will you defend yourself?

From me, I mean. Let’s kill something. The mind
moves forward, the paint layers up: glop glop and
shellac. I shovel the color into our faces, I shovel our
faces into our faces. They look like me. I move them
around. I prefer to blame others, it’s easier. King me.