For the Birds

The second issue of Cranky is less awful and more varied than the first one was, but it's still uneven and self-delighted and full of birds. Literally. There's an egret on the side of the road in Joseph Massey's great and strange little poem "101"; in "To Be Six," Kary Wayson describes a blue-necked bird as being "bigger than my father"; in Meredith Quartermain's "Geography," a swan-necked, thickly breasted crowd of Miss Northern Ohio contestants "flocks" into a hotel hall; in "Alternate Paths," Soham Patel references "a famous mockingbird"; in Nico Vassilakis' prose poem "We Like BIRDLAND," some "doves connect mid-flight"; in Shannon Borg's "Corset," twilight is described as "the hour of bats and swallows" and, along a shore somewhere, herons are "bending to greet new salmon"; Carlos Martinez's "Nature Walk" concludes with the image of hikers glancing back "at some tall, nameless bird//standing on one leg, its blue/feathers ruffled by a breeze./It doesn't move. It doesn't care."

There are, by my count, eight pieces about or featuring birds in this issue of Cranky (the eighth is Louisa Peck's story "Surely Goodness and Mercy"), and the surest way to anger the editors of Cranky would be to point this out (again). Months ago in this column I faulted the first issue of Cranky for "imaginative failure" on account of, well, accounting: It's disheartening when one tired symbol (a bird, say) rears its beaked head again and again in piece after piece in a single issue of a literary journal. To say nothing of when it happens in back-to-back issues. Leaving aside the preponderance of moons, trees, coffee, cigarettes, and beaches, the first issue of Cranky, like the current issue of Cranky, contained eight pieces about birds.

This obvious preoccupation is interesting and probably coincidental. I have no strong theory about why birds are so prevalent in bad poetry, though my suspicion is that birds are prevalent in all poetry and I just happen to notice symbolic redundancies when I'm trying to figure out what's wrong with the bad stuff. There are all kinds of birds flying through good poetry, too--for instance, the poems here by Joseph Massey, Kary Wayson, and Carlos Martinez--and the standout piece in this issue, Louisa Peck's "Surely Goodness and Mercy," happens to begin with an incident involving a killed crow. (The incident, in turn, gives way to a memory from the narrator's childhood about a "fender-stunned seagull" torn apart for food by a crow, and to the bird-averse narrator's strangely conciliatory relationship with two crows that live in a tree in her yard.) It's hard to describe how it is that a story so charged with loathing can be so rewarding, but context might have something to do with it. In the company of so much nostalgia and awe over all things flight-capable, the birds in Peck's story are menacing, dirty, and bleeding. They are not props. They're birds.

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