We recently read Donika Kelly’s “Bower” in jail.
I love this poem. There’s a undercurrent of darkness as the bird constructs his pleasure dome. “Here, the iron smell of blood.” But he is undeterred. “And there, the bowerbird. Watch as he manicures his lawn.”
This bowerbird has themed his edifice around sparkling bits of blue. Bower birds incorporate all manner of found objects: berries, beetles (which must be repeatedly returned to their places as they attempt to crawl away), plastic scraps. A bowerbird has a clear vision, a dream of which colors will go where, and scours the forest to find the treasures he needs.
Female bowerbirds raise children alone, so she doesn’t need a helpful partner.. Instead, she’ll choose someone who can show her a good time. And her pleasure will be enhanced by a beautiful dome, a splendid arch beneath which several seconds of intercourse can transpire.
A mother-to-be typically visits several bowers before choosing her favorite. During each inspection, the male will hop and flutter during her evaluation … and then slump, dejected, if she flies away.
Kelly closes her poem with the experience of a crestfallen artist: “And then, / how the female finds him, / lacking. All that blue for nothing.”
I especially love the wry irony of that final sentence. We create art hoping to be fawned over; it’d feel nice to know that readers enjoyed a poem so much that they responded with a flush of desire for the author.
But this is rare. No piece of writing will appeal to all readers; an author is lucky if it appeals to any. The same holds true for painting, music, and bowers. A bowerbird hopes that his magnificent edifice will soon be the site of his acrobatic, if brief, bouts of copulation. But his life will miserable if he can’t also take pleasure in the sheer act of creation.
Female tropical birds are free to select whichever male they want. Their flirtations are unlikely to be turned down. And because each intimate encounter is vanishingly brief, a single male might service every female in an area. The other males, having assembled less glorious bowers, will die without ever experiencing erotic delights.
And so a bowerbird needs to enjoy his own arch. To endure, to thole, even if no one wants to fool around with him. Even if no one looks. He needs to feel pleasure as he assembles those beautiful hues. Every visiting female might quickly fly away, but all that blue will have served a purpose.
I love the poem “Bower,” but I also hope that Kelly enjoyed writing her poem enough that my opinion doesn’t matter.
After reading “Bower,” our class got sidetracked into a wide-ranging conversation about birds. At first, we did talk about bowerbirds. Most of the guys had no idea that birds like that existed – that an animal might make art – but one guy had seen a television show about them years ago, and the program made such a deep impression on him that he still remembered much of it. “They really do,” he said. “I’ve seen it. And they showed the people nearby, somebody who was eating breakfast cereal with like a plastic spoon, and this bird flew right over and took it. Later they found bits of it all broken up, in this weird ring around the bird’s nest.”
And then this man started talking about crows.
He gesticulated profusely as he talked, which was rather distracting. One of his hands had about 1.3 fingers; his ring finger was missing entirely, and the others, including his thumb, ended after the first knuckle. I wouldn’t have felt so puzzled – stuff happens, after all – except that one of his stories involved chasing somebody with a steak knife, and this was the hand he brandished.
Many of the people in jail have suffered severe physical injuries. When we were discussing personality manipulation and mind control, someone told me that he’d been hit by a truck and that everything in his life had felt flat and emotionless ever since. He showed me the thick scar at the top of his head: “When it happened, I guess I was out for almost a week, and it took another month before I really remembered my name. Even then, for that first year I felt like I was back in eighth grade again.” He was twenty-something when it happened.
Another time, I asked a man if he wanted to read the next poem and he said he couldn’t, that he was disabled, then thumped his leg onto the table. He had a rounded stump where most people’s foot would be. I didn’t quite see the connection between his injury and the poem, and it’s not as though we ever force people to read. We have a lot of guys with dyslexia, and I go in with the goal of making their Fridays a little more pleasant; no reason for somebody to suffer unnecessarily.
“I was working in a saw mill,” he said. “Planer caught me and, zzooomp. Didn’t even feel anything, at first.”
He got a legal settlement – a few guys muttered that they’d trade a foot for that kind of money – but his pain script led to more opiates and eventually the money was gone and he was in jail and the only help he was getting was from a PD.
But, right, back to the man gesticulating wildly as he talked about birds. “Real smart animals,” he said. “Especially crows.”
I nodded. Crows can use tools – they’ll craft hooks out of wire, cut twigs into the length they need for various tasks. Their brains are structured differently from primates’, which lets them cram just as many neurons into a much smaller volume.
The guy went on: “See, I was living in a tent, and cops kept coming by, harassing me. Cause there’d always be all this trash on the ground. They’d say, ‘look, we know that you’re sleeping here, but you can’t just leave all this shit everywhere.’ And they’d make me clean it up. I’d do it, but then a day or two later, there’d be trash scattered everywhere again. I thought it must be some homeless guys or something that was doing it.”
“But it turned out these crows – they knew I was drinking, that I’d never be up before about noon – and they were raiding the dumpster out behind McDonalds. I only found out because I actually woke up one morning to piss. And I looked up and these crows in the tree above me, they carried tied-off garbage bags way up into that tree and were tearing them apart, looking for things to eat. And that’s how all that trash was getting everywhere. I’d thought it was homeless guys, and it was crows!”
Male bowerbirds can afford to be such terrible parents because they live in tropical forests where there’s an abundance of food to eat. Crows, though, need ingenuity to survive. Sometimes they pick apart the leavings of hairless apes below.
Because crows raise their young in much harsher environs than bowerbirds, males contribute more than just DNA. While a mother roosts, the father will gather food. And so he’ll try to impress a potential mate, beforehand, with his gathering prowess. He won’t build, paint, or compose poetry, but he’ll scour the land below for tasty treats and shiny things, then leave these gifts at his beloved’s feet.
As with bowerbirds, some crows are helpful without reaping the benefits of a dalliance. When a female crow begins to build a nest, five other crows might bring sticks and twigs. These five won’t all be rewarded with the chance to sire her young.
With luck, the crows enjoy the sheer act of helping.
Neither birds nor humans will be lauded for everything we do. If we measure success based solely upon the rewards we reap, many of our lives will feel bleak. In a world full of pyramids – bowerbird mating, corporate finance, the attention economy of social media – not everyone can be at the top.
No matter the outcome, we can all feel fulfilled if we focus on the process of what we’re doing.
Admittedly, it’s hard to find the zen in a lot of the shitty jobs out there in the world. But I did enjoy typing this essay. And I will try to enjoy the irritating parts of parenting today. Someday, my children will learn to ask for cereal politely.