BIRD & FOREST by BRENT CUNNINGHAMTHOMAS FINK reviews:
Bird & Forest by Brent Cunningham
(Ugly Duckling Presse, 2005)
The first two-thirds of Brent Cunningham’s debut volume Bird & Forest are occupied by two long, ambitious sequences, the prose-poem “The Orations of Trillius Patronius” and the book’s title-text (including prose-poetry and verse). Cunningham’s unindented paragraphs tend to be short--generally two or three sentences of short and medium length. The single line of white space between paragraphs can be said to function like a stanza/strophe break in poetry or, when successive paragraphs are very brief, like an unenjambed line break. Although I will focus entirely on these two pieces, I should note that the last third of the book includes such successful prose-poems as “The Jellyfish,” “The Future,” and “The Cake,” as well as the concluding single-strophe poem, “The Troubling Volume.”
“The Orations of Trillius Patronius” presents a classical Roman orator who never existed and who sometimes miraculously quotes non-Roman modern writers. If such oratory, at different times, is supposed to dispense philosophical wisdom, call for ethical conduct, including sacrifice during crises, condemn current social tendencies, and present a self (whether through confession or self-justification) to promote virtue, argue for a political position, or gain, regain, or consolidate power, Cunningham brings conflicting aspects of these aims into play in nearly all of the twelve “Orations.” Bakhtinian heteroglossia, including a bevy of double-voiced discourses, results.
Trillius Patronius can trill patronizingly, sing sincerity and authenticity like Columbia critic Lionel Trilling, and (ironically or shrilly) remind his auditors of his and their own patronage. Is he just like a duplicitous DC politician? Unlike them, he can never sustain self-serving rhetoric for long, often moving to a meta-rhetorical gesture: “There is no surprise left in these words. You know the conventions will speak first, and my opinions in the anterior. Furthermore you know I also know these limitations. We know as much as the other knows, which makes it all shameful” (31). But Cunningham’s juxtapositions of moods and rhetorical elements do keep “surprise. . . in these words.” Part of the delight in reading Trillius’ meta-statements is to imagine a Bush or Cheney suddenly ignoring the teleprompter, reaching into the unconscious, and attaining such reckless candor. Also, whereas politicians generally expose their shortcomings to maximize voter sympathy, indicate humility, and stress their positive transformations, Trillius in the “Tenth Oration” does none of this:
My friends, I can hear you whispering. In the halls of this building, buying your steaming piles of beef, I can hear rumors as if they were my own conscience.
Let’s therefore speak directly and plainly, O my community. I will confess to everything tonight, for I have nothing against facing myself.
As you say, I am a hard goat of a man, as tight and unnatural as an apple core. My speeches have never taken anyone by the hand. Especially, they have never invited the stranger to sit by their fire, but are pleased to stand above the audience in robes of impenetrable charm.
Would it kill me to simply say: I have never understood others, my father was in management, and it is 5:15 in the evening? (28)
The “as if” in the second sentence involves a teasing ambiguity: does Trillius take the audience’s “rumors” as proof of his own guilt, or is he complaining about their unwarranted affront to his sensitivity? “An apple core,” though “tight,” is not “unnatural”; the simile tells us nothing about the speaker’s psychic “core.” Trillius’ language may be relatively “direct and plain” enough, but he simultaneously flaunts and criticizes his “speeches’” “impenetrable charm.” If politicians deprecate their own speaking ability to suggest their possession of virtues that are more important for governing, Trillius emphasizes, as no one hoping to overcome disapproval would, his inability to empathize with his fellow citizens, his “solitude” (to the extent that he might dream “of being the village idiot”), and a “self-absorption” and “arrogance” that, evidently, persists. His “father” being “in management” seems an odd excuse for his apartness, especially when a politico could put a positive spin on inheritance of management abilities.
To counterbalance his weaknesses, Trillius offers no redemptive program—only maxims, when, at the end, he mentions “the poet Nicolai Umperto, . . . who did not fear the incoherent as I do,” but “cherished the glint of the ocean as much as the wine in his glass” and “used to say of language that there was finally not much to it” (29). Appreciation of tiniest manifestations of beauty and skepticism about language’s communicative power are valid concepts for an orator to support, but here, the concepts are an after-thought. This confessional oration scores him no points with the audience of “dear friends, malicious enemies, and fellow senators” (12), except for the possible “charm” of elusiveness. Perhaps he uses the backdrop of an audience to soothe himself with complex layers of self-justification, including the final aesthetic “program.”
Various passages in the prose-poem suggest Trillius trying to achieve goals different from mere self-acceptance. In some, venting of a general loathing for humanity seems the aim. Trillius in “First Oration” first accords his audience conventional respect, but soon, “my friends” and “noble listeners” give way to the attitude expressed in the speech’s linguistically plural, rhyming subtitle, “Buenas Nochas, Roaches”: “I have already answered the most despicable of my accusers”; “But it is late, and I must take my leave of you narcissists, bad businessmen, and unsavory actresses-lovers” (11). In “Sixth Oration,” the coda represents cynicism about human relationships’ ethical possibilities: “And so, let me conclude by saying that no person loves except in exchange for love. . . . What do we have, my friends, except the question: Who stood to gain?” (21-22).
Nevertheless, Trillius, who frequently refers to military dangers facing his nation but continually defers consideration of them, is occasionally depicted as suspending exigencies of personal gain, self-absorption, and misanthropy enough to speculate on possibilities of sustaining democracy, a theme currently of great import in the U.S. In “Fourth Oration (On Democracy),” an aura of fatalism, mixed with cynicism and bloviated overgeneralization, impedes his attempt “to reason together” with his listeners about this issue, yet the melioristic dream remains. For him, “immortality is the great obsession of democracy,” because “it knows very well how things can turn out” and “knows you”—the “citizens”—“are the most compromised and calculating of beings” (17), susceptible to tyranny’s lures. Admitting that many social matters were solved by superstitious procedures before democracy’s advent, Trillius tacitly acknowledges rationality as a very imperfect improvement:
Before our empire was founded, decisions were being made using the lightning, swords, and birds of the natural surroundings. A rock was wrapped in a cloth, and hurled into the canyon.
Things are different now. But how are they different? We find that the rock is now covered with mirrors.
My friends, the individual falls with her country. Isn’t it true that she can see power falling alongside her, in its most murderous and noble intentions, and meanwhile cannot see herself fall?
Democracy only pities itself. . . .
Today democracy bleeds, cries, and expands itself. Every day of its young life it declares itself more scientific than the last, its instruments the very genetic instruments it so deplores.
Nevertheless the ballots are distributed. Calm, in a gentle rain of numbers, pervades the voting area. . . .
And so we find, shall we say, that a system without flaws is not a system. The mind can see democracy lying to itself. And it can feel the feelings of pleasure and superiority. (17-18)
The trope of the “rock . . . covered with mirrors” suggests that people’s narcissism can dilute or even smother democracy, but, along with the repeated personification of the concept, it also reflects the speaker’s strange way of splitting a political idea from its origin in human minds. How could a conceptual “rock” exist outside its representability in terms of human interactions? Only individuals with democratic ideals could be “obsessed” with the “immortality” of democratic praxis.
And yet, the personification raises the idea that human beings can design a version of democracy that serves relatively few and oppresses many. In mentioning “our empire,” Trillius reminds us that Rome’s prosperity was based on conquest and enslavement; U.S. democracy’s economic success can be tied, not only to slavery and patriarchal domination, but to imperialist practices. Thus, democracy’s self-expansion through war and commerce is not always a good thing, or not entirely so; its “scientific. . . instruments” may serve domination. As in the 2000 U.S. Presidential election, the “calm” of “voting” masks how “democracy” can be “lying to itself.” However, included in Trillius’ discourse is the possibility of “the mind” uncovering this lie and, rather than feeling “pleasure and superiority,” combating the tendency and working out some of the “system’s” “flaws” by expanding access to its benefits. Realization of “pure,” limitless, “flawless” democracy seems impossible to conceive, but Trillius’ rhetoric here provides a choice of whether to embrace fatalism and cynical individualism or to try to make democratic collectivity steadily more inclusive.
The acute self-awareness characterizing “The Orations of Trillius Patronius” is given even greater play in “Bird & Forest,” since the latter text is nine pages (or 1 ½ times) longer. The title-text begins with “Truth is the Flaw,” an enigmatic, four-couplet lyric about a warning bell “daily rung by idiotes” and featuring mangled spelling and syntax. This concentration on the interplay of accuracy and error is followed by “Preface to the Bird & Forest,” which establishes, in a deadpan tone, a fundamental dramatic situation, the image that mysteriously came to obsess the speaker in the midst of a boring day:
We presume there is something to understand. If we understand it, we say, we will be satisfied.
The date was November 24, 2001. A warm, bright day. Seeing how everyone is asked to do something, I was doing something. Around me, rows of people walked through a massive, windowless building, without air or light, between displays of books. It was difficult to stay awake.
During the early afternoon, there appeared to me the image of a bird approaching a forest, then flying into it. In front of and behind the bird, a crooked, faint, illuminated shaft marked the path of its flight.
Later, I determined there were three components to this image: the forest, the bird, and the route of its movement.
What was there to understand about this image? Wasn’t it like every other one to appear in the history of images? Nevertheless I remembered it.
At least a month passed. Time was moving along. I had drawn a few pictures of birds flying through trees. If there was something to understand, I was happier not to perform that task. (38)
“November 24, 2001,” which might be the day that Cunningham began the poem, was a little over two months after 9/11; it was also the day that “two fast-moving coronal mass ejections (CMEs) struck Earth’s magnetic field” and spawned “Northern Lights” in the U.S. and “Southern Lights” “in New Zealand and Australia (http://www.spaceweather.com /aurora/gallery_24 nov01.html). In addition, a tornado killed people and destroyed homes in Mississippi and Alabama on that day (http://www.tornadoproject.com/past/pastts01.htm). Indeed, the image of the bird’s flight could be interpreted either as an occasion for the aesthetic appreciation of natural beauty or a violent act or an existential gesture or many other things. The desire “not to perform [the] task” of understanding—which does not stop Cunningham from producing an eighteen-section text with such blatantly hermeneutic (Wallace Stevens-influenced?) section-titles as “Principle of the Forest,” “Principle of the Bird,” “Notes on the Two Principles,” “Part 2: The Exact, Exact Bird,” “5 Maxims of the Bird & Forest” (And Forest),” “5 Axioms of the Bird & Forest,” and “Footnote to the Abdication”—may be rooted in the sense that our presumption that “there is something to understand” is fatuous, because severe overdetermination attends every conversion of image into trope or image into narrative frame: “The bird is everything! The forest is everything! Your [feeling] is what is nothing! Your [religion] is what is nothing!. . . Your theory [itself] is nothing of itself!” (58).
When the image is a depiction of an action, overdetermination also haunts the tracing of that action to a motive. The situation’s instability is underscored by the fact that three successive sections, each termed “Description,” displace some of the particulars of the opening narrative with a different setting, the most extreme being “a ditch” in which the speaker awakens (42). Obsession, of course, is not going to be deterred by awareness that interpretive action is futile: “In its cruelty the mind demands two contradictory things: to hear itself and to escape itself” (50). “Abdication,” in fact, uses an elaborately formal set of assertions to parody the supposition that one can achieve total detachment from one’s vital concerns, and especially from the will to interpretation: “I abdicate my bird, my forest,/ my right to speak of it/ my right to know it is mine/ my right to be known by it/ and to see its implications” (64).
Instead of “abdication,” and alongside allegory about the orphaning of the signifier from the signified and about a tortured, self-conscious inability to shake free of nostalgia for stable symbolic meaning, in “Bird & Forest,” conjectural play with multiple narrative/interpretive possibilities (that one knows are fictions) permits some investigation of the complexities of desire, will, and response to environmental conditions. “Principle of the Forest” begins: “The forest has no principle to begin with. If we decide to have our bird stand for human speech, the forest will grow an auditory canal, a middle ear, a cochlea. If we prefer our bird to be the soul, the forest will leaden and concretize itself” (43).
“Bird & Forest” features relatively few images of war or violence, often juxtaposed with very different images or abstractions, but, because the date of “November 24, 2001” appears near the beginning, and because the notion of haunting is central to the work, a reader would naturally consider these passages in the context of 9/11: “Meanwhile the government defends itself” (47); “It was blood and phlegm that came from that dilapidation, more than their economy, contained in their actual bleeding and being put into actual vehicles, at all hours” (52-53). In a single section, a few paragraphs apart but separated by a meditation on artistic production and language, are a passage that could refer to the terrorists’ suicidal collision with the Twin Towers (and new suicide bombers ready to take their place) and one that strengthens the tropological link between bird and airplane: “In short, I understood: the bird had died in its flight, while another had taken its place. . . . My bird, my forest. How they sickened and excited me. Then a new set of concerns came along, new technologies, a new lease on life. Metal sides, rubber wheels, metal feathers, glass windows, bridges, roads, floats, tunnels. The flyer entered a forest mechanical” (54). Even if the bird’s death could mean the inability to hold a precise image in mind for long and “new technologies” could indicate a positive force, not a reference to WMDs, it is difficult not to think of the lethal airplanes as a referent for “metal feathers.” Also, “bridges, roads,” and “tunnels” are obvious targets for a terrorist attack. Direct reference to 9/11, again, interspersed with different concepts and images, occurs in the text’s very last section, “Epilogue to the Bird & Forest”:
A wife leaves her husband. A plane flies into a building. A belief enters a state of doubt. A person tries to know something. A person climbs from a ditch. An empire invades its ruins. A madness goes through a sphere of order. An order goes through a sphere of madness. A husband leaves his wife. A woman finds herself in a forest of phalluses. A person is lost. A person sees glimpses of light. Images fly through images. A creature flies through the woods.
We are taught: experience, then emotion, then thought. But what do we practice?
The day was July 28, 2003. A warm, bright day. (67)
The text’s “action” announces its enclosure within a less than two year interval, a time of war, beginning and ending, ironically, with “a warm, bright day.” In the first two of the simple, declarative sentences in the long paragraph above, a jarring juxtaposition of domestic departure and terrorist arrival sets a tone for disjunction that also invites the making of connections. One “belief” entering “doubt” is the illusion of U.S. invulnerability. “Bird”-citizens have entered a “forest” of insecurity; this is reinforced by the interchangeability of directions of change in the binary “madness/order.” Alluding to the Beckettian place from which, in one version, the speaker first saw the bird’s flight, “the ditch” may signify not only paralyzing doubt from which someone strives to “climb” but also Ground Zero’s ditch, once the destruction was cleared away. The strange reference to “empire” and “ruins” is multiply legible: the U.S. administration plunders (capitalizes on) 9/11’s devastation to justify an imperialist project (beyond legitimately fighting terrorism); it seeks to make persuasive media “images fly through images.” Islamic fundamentalist leaders, whose patriarchal ideology puts women “in a forest of phalluses,” ransacks the fact of many Moslems’ economic “ruins” to expand their antidemocratic “empire.” The arrow from “experience” to “emotion” to “thought” may be logical, but Cunningham’s speaker is right to wonder “what. . . we practice,” because “Bird & Forest,” like the book in general, continually questions bases for articulating what constitutes “experience,” “thought,” and their complex interplay.
Thomas Fink, Professor of English at CUNY-LaGuardia, is the author of two books of criticism, including A DIFFERENT SENSE OF POWER (2001), and three books of poetry, most recently AFTER TAXES (Marsh Hawk, 2004). His work has appeared in JACKET, VERSE, TALISMAN, CHICAGO REVIEW, DENVER QUARTERLY, x-Stream, MORIA, MILK, AUGHT, OCTOPUS, CONTEMPORARY LITERATURE, AMERICAN POETRY REVIEW, and numerous other journals and ezines. Fink's paintings hang in various collections.