Reviews | Amherst College
Books | What They Are Reading
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
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
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
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.
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Illustration: College Archives and Special Collection