Since the beginning of time it seems poets have been preoccupied with birds. Wordsworth's cuckoo and Keats' nightingale come immediately to mind. As does Wallace Stevens' blackbird (and the thirteen ways of looking at it).
At first look I thought I was the wrong person to review this new collection of poems by B.J. Best. In general, I don't pay much attention to birds, I could care less about Owen Gromme, and I didn't particularly like Lorrie Moore's Birds of America (this last bit is my feeble attempt to keep my review lighthearted).
But Best's collection, Birds of Wisconsin, really got to me. The first poem to stop me in my tracks was "baltimore orioles." It leaps from the physical to that which can't ordinarily be expressed in words in ways that only good poetry can:
Schools taught us
how their bones are hollow tubes;
and about baltimore, how far
from milwaukee it might be—
but not about how the girl
you once loved
now lives there, hanging
up the telephone, stringing
pearls of popcorn at christmas,
and counting birds as if they were stars
Author of State Sonnets and other chapbooks, B.J. Best is a professor at Carroll University, and he lives outside of West Bend with his wife, son, their three cats. His work has appeared in numerous journals, including Wisconsin People & Ideas.
It's interesting to note Best has an Owen Gromme print of a cardinal done for his grandfather. Perhaps this print led him to borrow the title of his new book from the famous wildlife artist, whose Birds of Wisconsin (1963) contained over six hundred hand painted portraits of 326 individual species. A staunch environmentalist and conservationist, Gromme spent most of his life at the Milwaukee Public Museum (which funded his book project).
Best infuses his book with the nerdy, birdy ways of Gromme, and, in many ways, his Birds of Wisconsin captures the essence of our native species as well. Although the first half of Best's book seems a bit overly grounded, Part 2, The Prayers of Birds, surprises with wit and wisdom that flies off the page, as in this selection from "The Prayer of the Common Pigeon."
Forgive me, I have defiled yet another city statue.
I have eaten old popcorn on the sidewalk.
I have edged near old men and cooed like a lover.
I have forgotten what it is to be a bird.
Though a jury of blackbirds—like those judging scientists in Best's "Bird Dissection"—might sneer at the poet for using our winged friends for his own purposes, I doubt they (or you) will hang him from a cloud "with a noose made of feathers."
This is an attractive book from New Rivers Press at an attractive piece. Unlike a Gromme print, it belongs on your coffee table rather than sitting on your shelf.