“I started to think of all the ways we are locked in our own selves and how much we can ever really be understood by others.“
The crow keeps records of my movements,
no need for locks, his beak is keen and fast.
Everywhere the starlings gather, they chitchat
everything, quick quick, I go back to my cell
to get away. Each night they want me to eat
small mice, or frogs, whatever the owls put
in front of me, they watch, heads turned, I say
its good grub, but I throw up, the owl is pleased,
I know this because her barn feathers get thick
and bright as my throat clogs. She doesn’t speak.
I spend my time alone, in my cell, tearing up
pieces of paper, the birds think I’m nesting.
This poem was inspired by my watching the movie The Bird Man of Alcatraz. I had been glued to my desk in lockdown working on various aspects of COVID and public health and watching the birds outside my window became really fascinating, how small and free they were. When I revisited the film I was struck by how driven and scientific the main character was, how different he was from others and how locked in his own world. I started to think of all the ways we are locked in our own selves and how much we can ever really be understood by others. It made me think of the time when I worked in mental health units, and where the people were being observed and yet I often found those doing the ‘observing’ even stranger. These thoughts led me to the film and book Birdy (by William Wharton). There a character can never really be seen the way he needs to be, even Ted Hughes’ famous ‘The Hawk Roosting’ gives a fantastic sense of violence and ‘otherness’. I wanted to write about birds because we cannot really relate to their consciousness even though they have similar functions to us: they eat, sleep, rest and care for young, their raw materials are so different, the beaks and the eggs etc., so they evoke something in me that wants to translate them. We humans also desire their otherness as symbols. I wanted to explore that.
You asked about the line breaks in this poem, mostly I wanted the line breaks to end on single syllable words, some hard sounding ends to give a pecking feeling “his beak is keen and fast”. I wanted a few weird ways to end and enjamb to give an off-kilter feel, like “chitchat/everything, quick quick”. The tiny sentence about the owl in the 5th couplet says quite a bit. She misinterprets the protagonists action of refusing food, because owls find ‘throwing up’ quite normal. Her behaviour is in turn interpreted by the protagonist who believes she is pleased. Can the birds interpret the behaviour of the strange incarcerated creature? The act of destruction and resistance is also an act of creation depending on available actions. I wanted to show that we can all be prisoners of our own interpretations of each other. I wrote this in couplets because I wanted to give it an airy feel, despite its sense of prison and confinement, like the bird man of Alcatraz there is something in the way the protagonist views confinement that is resistant and free.
Nature is not fluffy from my point of view, birds are neither good nor bad, but they have jobs to do, nature simply survives and moves on dependent on the context it is to itself. I’m fascinated by the interplay between habitat and behaviour and what happens if our habitats are not free, are our prisons, how will this change our ‘natural’ behaviours? I was giving a creature of nature a voice in an unnatural setting, perhaps we are all both natural and unnatural given our strange animal needs.