Poetry is like pornography: I know it when I see it. Or read it if you want to be picky. Or maybe it’s an acquired taste, something you have to be trained to learn to like. Gin martinis might be an acquired taste, but in my case, I took to a gin martini the way a thirsty cat takes to a water fountain.
In any case, for most of my writing life, I’ve avoided poetry, especially poetry that rhymes. Although I do like musical lyrics and most of those rhyme. I’m hedging here because I read a slim book of poetry not too long ago and I want to review it. The problem is, I’d rather just share the poems. But I can’t afford to send each of you a copy so you’re stuck with my attempt at a review. I hope you enjoy it. Even more, I hope you buy this book.
Bird Light is a collection of lyrical meditations on birds and things like birds, like life. The poems are by Elizabeth Cohen, whose collection of short stories, Hypothetical Girl, I reviewed last year. The lovely line drawings are by Aliki Barnstone, a woman of many gifts. The combination of Elizabeth’s poetry and Aliki’s drawings make Bird Light a transporting, transformative experience.
I am a bird lover, particularly of raptors, and so a poem like “The Red Tailed Hawks of Colesville New York” moved me with its simple play of joy and sadness: joy of seeing a couple of hawks christened Spunk and Spike, their closeness and playfulness; the sadness when one day only one is sighted and then, later, neither.
Intermingled with poems about peacocks, red-tailed hawks, bluejays, owls, cranes, red-crested flickers, and many other birds, are poems that read like mini-memoirs, a life spent and described by area codes and zip codes, from being a daughter to having a daughter. I am transported, almost literally it seems, from the red dust and mesas of the southwest to the Flickers and grackles of the northeast.
In particular, I felt transformed by the utter beauty and vulnerability of “Bluebird”: a tattoo of a bluebird to mark a broken heart at 22, except the tattoo is slightly off being on the right breast and not directly on the heart. And yet,
It hovered over the death beds of each of my parents,
And for nine months it glided over the soft,
unconnected bones of my daughter’s head.
Bluebirds are very special to me, being the favorite bird of my deceased stepfather and the favorite bird of his son who died in his early 30s from cancer and who sighted a bluebird once from his window and told his father that God must have wanted to keep him alive a little longer just to see the bluebird. Now I can’t see a bluebird without saying a little prayer for Ken and Tim. And this poem, “Bluebird,” by Elizabeth adds to that pleasant pang I get whenever a bluebird flies in front of me.
The title poem, “Bird Light,” makes its appearance almost halfway through the volume. She starts with,
When my marriage was over
the birds began
and I think to myself that she must have been writing these poems all along, probably refining them a little bit each time until there was nothing left to add or take away, until they were contained and perfect.
One thing ends inside your life
and there is an opening for something new
Your eyes start over, widen toward a periphery
I cling to these three lines and think, this is Bird Light, the “something new” that comes when you allow an opening. Studying birds, sorting your life by area codes and zip codes, a pattern seems to emerge suggesting that everything goes on as it should, or as it will, toward “The Yes”:
had a glass of chilled maybe
with some toasted perhaps
I highly recommend Bird Light by Elizabeth Cohen. Pick up a copy from Amazon and enjoy some time with the birds and Elizabeth and Aliki.