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POETRY magazine reviews BIRD EATING BIRD

posted Sep 28, 2016, 12:12 PM by kristin naca   [ updated Oct 11, 2016, 3:08 PM ]


Oh, hi there, reader! Hello!

Matthew Zapruder’s Come On All You Ghosts, Vera Pavlova’s If There is Something to Desire, and Kristin Naca’s Bird Eating Bird.

Bird Eating Bird, by Kristin Naca. Harper Perennial.$13.99.

In Leonard Bernstein’s revelatory and ridiculous playlet Bull Session in the Rockies, a lyric poet motors through the American West while driving home this comparison between music and words: “Whenwords are in the hands of an artist, a poet, they can acquire a value of their own, over and above the mental image they convey,” thus becoming “more like notes, which exist basically for their own sake and not for any representational idea.” 

Kristen Naca’s often mellifluous first collection delivers sound in concert with sense, but—in accordance with the lyric poet’s theory—the former lures attention away from the latter, so that on first reading, you hear the poetry rather than understand it. She estranges American readers from our own language even as she introduces us to its musical undertones:

Her lips, red gathering in the creases when she puckers.

Endings that are dirty tricks and also feathers.

Red water out the pipes, teeming from the rusty gutters. 
       —From “Speaking English is Like”

When her uneasily bilingual poetry incorporates Spanish, she at once draws English speakers closer to her own experience—a Filipina-American, Naca grew up with Spanish and English in her ears—and alienates those of us who don’t know the other language well. Like the Nuyorican Poets, Naca occupies one of America’s many linguistic borderlands, and seems at home neither in Spanish nor in English: when using one, she must always negotiate with the other. In Bird Eating Bird, that discord echoes through the reader’s experience too.

Naca precedes four of her English poems with their Spanish versions, providing all but the perfectly bilingual with readerly green cards: she invites us in, but only so far. At other moments, she mixes the languages, translating the Spanish phrases only sometimes. When she does, she places English translations to the right of Spanish words, creating a verbal seesaw that’s hard for the monolingual reader to balance: if you attend only to the Spanish, you sink into confusion; if you stop looking at the poem to glance at the English, you break the rhythm of reading. Whether she places translations on the following page, requiring page flipping, or on the same line, necessitating eye flicking, she forces imperfect options on the reader—a reflection, perhaps, of the strained hybridity of her own bicultural experience.

Yet meaning emanates from that awkwardness. The translated phrases clustering to the right of the poem clump into short stanzas of their own, commenting on the original. Then Naca’s text seems most like a score, scripting concurrent cadences that are impossible to read, and hear, at once. This dual effect proves particularly effective in poems about couples. While the speaker describes a romantic encounter, the translation of assorted phrases floats on the right-hand margin, permitting another voice to assert:

            you didn’t stop staring
      you alone were completely
              beautiful and sensual

               . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
         How I fell into your arms

              —From “Gavilán o Paloma”

One of Naca’s finest pieces, “House,” melds not only languages but also genres, subjects, and styles. This surreal prose poem describes the identity crisis of the word “house,” and it reads like a children’sstory embedded with linguistic morals. Characteristically, Naca focuses first on sonics. She highlights the heinous “h,” a letter Shakespeare’s multilingual pedant Holofernes dubbed an “abhomination.” (Sometimes—as in Spanish—it’s silent; sometimes—as in French—it’s silent in ways that complicate matters anyway; sometimes—as in English—it’s silent only sometimes.) Naca describes the pronunciation of a Spanish-style “house,” without that “chimneystack, cleft of a letter.” After a war of words whose complexities exceed the scope of this chronicle—let’s just say some letters aren’t happy that others get pronounced louder and more consistently than they do—that silent “h” feels unwanted, and goes wandering, an alphabetic Cain:

And for the rest of her days misfortune followed her, sentence, language, country, continent. . . . In Spanish, ‘h’ suffered mistaken identity: ¿‘Hache’ o ‘ge’ o ‘equis’ o ‘jota,’ ¿cuál es su nombre, ‘h’? The Spanish words said. 

Naca doesn’t translate that sentence, which asks the name of “h”: is it “h,” “g,” “x,” “j”? (In Spanish, each of those letters can be pronounced the same way, like the “h” in “ha.”) Various Spanish constructions also use “hache,” “ge,” “equis,” and “jota” interchangeably, as placeholder terms. In such subtle ways does Naca build the problems of insignificance, of homelessness, of namelessness, into this parable of a single letter, and remind that major issues of immigrant experience are writ small in problems of pronunciation. In “House,” Naca’s fascination with sound becomes political as well as poetic.

When it comes to religion and sex, as well as to language, Naca issues incisive observations from outside established systems—literary knife-throws. Her teasingly titled poem “The Adoration at El Montan Motor Lodge” refers not to Catholic devotion but to lesbian sex. “Baptism” describes, rather than its titular event, the slaughtering and roasting of a pig that gets “hoisted onto some posts,” where it “hovered for hours over the orange coals” until “the pork skin transluted.” “Transluted” isn’t a word, though it hints at the ideas of translucence and translation, and recalls verbs like “transubstantiate,” at the core of Christian debates over the contents of the Communion cup. Naca—who places herself literally off to one side of the pig party—can play with language in illuminating ways not despite but because of her location on the periphery.

The poet is not merely on an edge; she’s on edges—between various cultures, languages, ways of life. Does that orientation put her on edge? This book about borders analyzes what happens when objects touch, and often it’s ugly: tobacco stains, water stains, “the cheap nail / polish that pooled between / her cuticle and skin,” “tires leav[ing] tar varnish on the street.” But the volume’s loveliest passage shows a city pretty in purple:

street lamps gauze the town over in purple, when the cool, dimming light of August approaches—houses, and sidewalks, the laundry mat windows, and laundry chiming in the windows of the washing machines, and suds purpling....And lovers soothing against each other in the purple heat of August, leaving swatches of color on the sheets beneath them.
     —From “House”

Sometimes—as in Bird Eating Bird—things come together nicely.

  • Originally Published: April 1st, 2011