On Anna Journeys If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting

Kara Candito

University of Georgia Press, 2009, 90 pages

Reading through a recent batch of first poetry collections, I find myself returning again and again to Anna Journey’s If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting. It’s not just because Journey’s poetry marks a refreshing departure from the emerging poet’s tendency to oversubscribe to one side in the ongoing aesthetic argument between autobiographical lyricism and intellectual indeterminism. It’s Journey’s absolute fidelity to a new, radically mythological, often magical mode of experience that makes If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting such an important first collection, truly worthy of its National Poetry Series winner designation. The title of the first poem in the collection, “Adorable Siren, Do You Love the Damned?” is a line taken from Baudelaire, whose irreverent tone emerges as a generative influence for Journey in the poem’s opening:

The devil pries open my red hibiscus like skirts. On the crack
          corner those transvestite hookers won’t quit
competing with my garden’s

barbed and carnal tongues. The bitch
          scent of the silver-

and pink-clawed possum in heat—all rhubarb-breath and unbelievable

          udder—is sharp as fuchsia

spokes of oleander. I could put
          my eye out looking, I could run with knives.

There is much to take in here, from the marriage of Baudelairian deviance (“On the crack / corner those transvestite hookers won’t quit”) and Plathian slant-rhyme (“all rhubarb-breath and unbelievable / udder”), to a Southern Gothic mode of putrefaction (“. . . my garden’s / / barbed and carnal tongues”). But, what strikes me most here is Journey’s unity and integrity of imagination. Hers is a sensibility that melts distinctions and insists upon the power of unrestrained desires. There is no gradual assent into Journey’s mythological realm full of sharp edges and jagged, disorienting enjambments. Rather, she plunges headfirst into danger, running with knives, addressing the devil with spirited delight:

                                  . . . What song, devil, is best
sung from my balcony

in my birthday suit, but my heartleaf nightshade’s

          liquory patina? I’m drunk,
though I won’t wear heels, honey, or I’d fall

for anyone. I’d fall devil
          over heels over edge over oleander
over open mouth

over birthmark over forked

          tongue over forked tongue
that turns on mine.

One must be at ease with the contemplation of a fluid, volatile self to achieve such virtuosic images as “I’d fall devil / over heels over edge over oleander / over open mouth.” The poems in If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting announce a Plathian fascination with the edge of an abyss that signals self-annihilation. And like Plath’s, Journey’s poems achieve a radical version of Keatsian disinterestedness in that the speaker either projects herself onto the poetic landscape or explodes into it. In the spirit of “Lady Lazarus,” “Adorable Siren, Do You Love the Damned?” is a virtuosic performance that disrupts and detonates clichéd images of femininity (“I’m drunk, / though I won’t wear heels, honey . . .”) in radical and surprising ways. Yet, the poem’s hypnotic rhythms are what resonate most fiercely, directing the reader’s attention away from the particularities of life toward an imagination of pure force, a “forked tongue / that turns on mine.”

Journey’s incantatory language, coupled with reoccurring tropes of flowers, foxes, mirrors and mythical creatures give me the sense that I’m stumbling through a fairy tale funhouse, where flowers have names like “Lucifer’s Panties” and grackles collide with the ghosts of dead grandparents. These fantastical images are tempered by witty takes on the contemporary clichés of childhood danger—from smashed windows to menacing white vans to a wasp hovering “near a bulge in the picket fence”—Journey juggles the mythical past with the mundane and material present with an authority all too rare in emerging poets.

While If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting is anything but a typical, autobiographical first book collection, the poems in which Journey takes on the psycho-sexual relics of adolescent passage resonate as some of her most accomplished. I attribute their success to Journey’s dazzling linguistic dexterity, which enables fidelity to the foundation of an experience while transcending and universalizing it. Early in the second section of the collection, “The Mirror’s Lake Is Forever” is perhaps the strongest example of such a poem:

That’s when I knew the mirror was all sex and hard
fact. Unlike knowing my grandfather

posthumously. Because a ghost can’t be
androgynous as a lamp is,

as peat moss is,

as the smell of cedar—

knife-feathery. Because the dead
can watch me pee without

even a trace of embarrassment. And who
has the right to more? Mirror

that couldn’t reach my dead
grandfather’s closet—his jewel-colored

medical books in former editions,
his gay porn magazines: men smooth

as conchs in softcore seascapes. My mother,
who found them while cleaning

out his house, asks, Are you sorry
I told you? I said, No,

I’m not sorry. As if staring
into his horn-rims and my grandmother’s

coral dress could help me understand
the selfishness of portraits—

their shut door splintering the past’s
exact coffin-space.

I know that shame
is beard-high with two daughters—the blonde

one with cats and the dark one with red-
haired girls. I know

the mirror’s lake is forever
dragged for corpses, lily-buoyant

arteries, livers, and cocks. I know
he’s caught there: doctor,

with his white coat, and gold-veined
tobacco. And what is more haunted

than the smoked voices
of cicadas under plums? And what

heats faster than silver? His constellation:
cold instruments raised

over useless space. Somewhere
there’s a ghost

I’ll open my shirt for . . .

As suggested by the title, the poem functions as a dreamlike adolescent self-portrait comprised of haunting images. “The Mirror’s Lake Is Forever,” is lyric voyage filled with internalized enigmas. As such, it is mercifully devoid of sentimentality and full of uncanny wisdom and insight (“Because the dead / can watch me pee without / / even a trace of embarrassment.”) into a world where the ghosts of dead grandfathers who denied their true desires float to the surface of consciousness, like drowned bodies.

Like Baudelaire who condemned the repressive pleasantries of bourgeoisie life, Journey resists a life of appearances, “the selfishness of portraits— / / their shut door splintering the past’s / exact coffin-space.” The speaker’s vision of her grandfather as a cold physician, “with his white coat, and gold-veined / tobacco” refuses to sublimate the strange excesses of memory and identity. The poem ends in a series of questions: “And what is more haunted / than the smoked voices / / of cicadas under plums? And what/heats faster than silver?” address the larger concerns of the collection. What burns through the surfaces of things to reveal their complex, hidden textures? Journey’s answer seems to be language. A self experienced through language, not emotion, is the driving force of transcendence in “The Mirror’s Lake Is Forever,” a poem that is overwhelming, seductive, and irreverent in its treatment of social and cultural taboos.

By resisting the dead “coffin-space” of regulation and inscription, Journey’s speaker arrives again and again at a slippery, subversive multiplicity of meanings. This open-endedness of subject and form draws the reader back to the clause, “if,” in book’s title, If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting, and toward a deeper contemplation of the title poem, one of several in the book that takes its subject matter from the quirky magic of Appalachian folk myths. Journey begins this penultimate poem with a simple answer to the question of what happens when birds gather strands of your hair to build a nest: “Among other things, / you’ll go crazy.” Yet, madness is kind of rapture, a catalogue of images and peculiar memories—“fools’ gold / catching in the car door,” Barbie Dolls with mohawks and “the time a mockingbird / / crapped right down the part of your hair.” Journey’s sensibility compels her to sift through all of this chaotic debris, to find a kind of jagged magic in the wreckage of experience and identity. This is her most important achievement in If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting, a plural poetic vision that announces itself with wit and voracious joy.

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