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Reviews | Amherst College Books | What They Are Reading


Painted illustration of two pileated woodpeckers
Pileated woodpeckers (detail),
from Audubon's Birds of America

Bird Talk: Conversations with Birds. By Alan Powers ’66. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books/Frog, Ltd., 2003.
200 pp. $14.95 paperback.

Alan Powers’ Bird Talk is the kind of book that makes you glad you’re not a Barnes & Noble shelver trying to figure out where to put it. It’s not really a science book, not a bird-watching book, though it would certainly appeal to people interested in those fields. It is in some ways a natural history book, but it has elements of literature, poetry, music and history. It is, in short, the perfect product of a liberal arts education.

You might even say that this is not really a book at all, at least in the conventional nonfiction sense. Although it is divided into chapters with ostensible themes, the themes themselves are wispy and apt to evaporate as the chapters proceed. There is no overall point, no argument supported by evidence, and the book’s primary purpose is not to convey information, though it does indeed convey a lot of it. The book that is closest to it in form and feeling—again not a proper book at all—is the collected journals of Henry David Thoreau. Like Thoreau’s journals, there is a tremendous sense of intimacy here. You almost get the feeling that the writing was never intended for publication, as though you had come across someone’s letters to a lover or, perhaps more accurately in this case, as though you had tapped directly into the daydreaming mind of the author, with thoughts wandering where they will and one provoking another. That sense is not just a function of the book’s open-ended form, but of Powers’ writing, which has an intelligent ingenuousness that is utterly charming. Charm is not a quality that many books have in this post-modern age of high style and arch irony, but it is the hallmark of Powers’ work, and that quality, combined with the extraordinary breadth of his interests, makes reading this an unalloyed pleasure.

Bird Talk might be most accurately described as a book-length essay. And in the best tradition of Montaigne, its ostensible subject—bird vocalizations—is merely a platform for digression, and the digression is the real subject. Not that bird song is incidental to Powers. Whenever he talks about birds or bird song, he becomes positively rapturous. And his knowledge of the subject is extraordinarily deep. Where many people can identify bird songs or even mimic a few, Powers actually claims to have developed the ability to talk back to birds in their own language. In exotic locations, in his own backyard, even at a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, he encounters birds telling him about their lives, and he tries, with varying success, to acknowledge their comments with the appropriate song.

Although that description may sound like simple-minded new-age noodling, Powers is extremely precise in his analysis of bird song and actually presents much of it in musical notation, while also recognizing that much more cannot be notated because of note bending, quarter-tones and other micromusical details. He also provides wide-ranging and accurate information on bird behavior and biology. But conveying that information is not his primary goal. He quotes no scientific studies (see the recent work of Jeffrey Podos and the older research of Robert Bowman if you’re interested in this end of the subject) and provides very little in the way of facts for facts’ sake. His intention is less to inform than to inspire.

The incident on the New Jersey Turnpike is illustrative. Powers stops at a rest area on a hot summer day as he returns to his home in Westport, Mass., from the Folger Library in Washington. Cars are roaring by, the asphalt is littered with smashed drink cups and trash from the Roy Rogers restaurant, the air is filled with fumes and haze—the hellish epitome of anti-nature. Yet even here, perched in a withered tree, singing as though it is single-handedly holding back the human tide with its song, is a mockingbird. (Powers, of course, tries to sing back to it, surrounded by oblivious travelers, but he fails because his lips are too parched.) That anecdote is what this book is really about: birds as avatars.

And just as Powers’ interests are closer to the spirit than the flesh, his references are more often to poets than biologists. He cites Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson. (The Dickinson references and his description of a visit to the Folger Library are not the only connections to Amherst here. The publishing house for the book, Frog, Ltd., was founded by Richard Grossinger ’66 and Lindy Hough Smith’66 and grew out of their work on the Four College literary and arts magazine, Io.) Powers also quotes Giovanni Capurro’s lyrics to “O Sole Mio,” and then offers his own translation from the Napolitan. He pulls in the writings of Rhode Island founder Roger Williams and 17th-century Indian terms for various birds. He quotes Roman and French historical documents (he is a professor of English and romance literature at Bristol Community College), as well as the lyrics and melodies of the Beatles and the symphonies of Oliver Messian, and he makes a reference to his own jazz compositions based on bird songs. There is no self-consciousness in these references, and none seems frivolous. In fact, they add enormously to the richness of the reading experience.

Perhaps the most telling reference of all is to St. Francis of Assisi, who was famous for talking to birds (preaching to them, actually). Powers goes on at some length about St. Francis, and as you read about the solitary saint finding a religious experience in communicating with birds, you can’t help thinking of Powers himself finding the same experience at a rest stop in New Jersey.

— Mark Cherrington

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