Commentaries

How to Sing Back to the Birds

How can we use language, both a barrier and a bridge, to do more than just speak about the natural world? Is there a way we can sing back to the birds, rush with the river and shudder for the wind?

8XFnu_L0vBjr3M6kF3LvNDl72eJkfbmt4t8yenImKBVaiQDB_Rd1H6kmuBWtceBJOn a spring morning in San Diego, I notice the air has begun to smell differently—sweeter, perhaps a bit more moist.  It is mid March. I am just back from a writers’ conference in dark and snowy Boston, enjoying the green wildlife of my backyard from the comforts of my sun deck. The warm air is like a gift. Inspired, I try to write about it:

Sweet scent blossoms
hungry on the bough.
Loquats will soon fruit
and the rats will visit.
If we make cake
sweet enough to drive
them away, we’ll taste
sweet enough
to sleep in peace.

What I produce actually has little to do with the air itself. The poem begins, instead, to take on the physicality of my observations of the backyard. The air escapes. But I cannot escape myself, the self. She winds her way into all of my poems, with little care of whether I ask her to join me. After writing this poem, I am upset that I cannot prevent the “we” from getting in, much like the poem’s speaker cannot prevent the rats from eating the fruit. But who can say no to delicious, sweet fruit?

It is the same way with language. It is our artificial human construct—the words are undeniably sweet and the self can’t help but feast in self-awareness. Every time we speak we invite the self, the creator, to join and play. Because we invent language with the hopes of translating the visual, natural world into common expression, it is no surprise that we find the self reminding us of where our words came from. Even the word poetry, which comes from the Greek “I create,” cannot escape the self. Despite the fact that these words fail at exactly mimicking our experience—it seems that, thus far, they have been sufficient in their ability to translate.

But what if we don’t settle for translation? After all, the phrase “lost in translation” wasn’t birthed from nothing. If we think about what is lost in translating our experience of the physical world into the arbitrary world of language, what do we realize we miss? If we cannot think of anything at first, perhaps it is because we are so familiar with the words we use to communicate our existence. So what if we think of it this way: is our language sufficient enough to not only truly capture our experience but to also have a dialogue with it?

This is one of the many things that ecopoetics attempts to do—to be in honest conversation with the natural world, to look at our surroundings not as a mirror of the self but as a co-existing being, thing or element. It moves through association, not metaphor, de-familiarization not comfort, and unification, not the almighty self. In other words, it tries to find within our language the animal language, the universal language that can sing back to the birds instead of singing about the birds. It is here where the world we inhabit can HINGE with the world in which we imagine, the world in which we write.

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