February 2011
A review of

Bird Lovers, Backyard

by Thalia Field

Central question: What kind of animal are you?
Animals occupying the author’s home (includes backyard): blue jays, one puppy (so-called), one puppy-child (self-identifies), flies, spiders, ants, robins, cardinals, squirrels, skunks, raccoons, cat, lichen, bees, wasps, butterflies, chickadees, moths, worms, slugs, aphids, finches, doves, humans, chipmunks, and many others; Number of food courts under construction in airports recently visited by the author: three; Some of the author’s gurus: Milan Kundera, Bertolt Brecht, Erwin Piscator, Virginia Woolf (of Three Guineas); Representative sentence: “It is so often said that poetry and science both seek truth, but perhaps they both seek hedges against it.”

In “Apparatus for the Inscription of a Falling Body,” the first piece in Thalia Field’s Bird Lovers, Backyard, a group has been called together to address the “pigeon problem” at a heap of “scattered umbrellas,” “trash stations,” and a “highway entrance,” also known as a food court, near an “unbuilt field.” Electricity, spikes, and fireworks have been employed by the food court in its war on urban wildlife, and as the group surveys the ruin it discovers that humans have built a world that is failing them and demolishing everything else. Tragic as humanity’s fall may be, it lays the ground for alternatives here and now. In the food court we find ourselves exposed to a space of diplomatic negotiation between collectivity and architecture, narrative and science, poetry and language, a space where the human problem becomes an opportunity for tracing critical thought and addressing failures of communication.

An urgent call to think through faulty communications resounds throughout Field’s book in essayistic pieces ruptured all over by wit and, one might venture, love. In a piece on philosopher and animal trainer Vicki Hearne, “Recapitulation: Youthful Folly,” for example, a dog who bites the hand that beats it is condemned for being antisocial. Language itself may be at the root of this miscommunication. But, for Field, the possibility of communication lies in literary writing, which calls us to think critically and to become activists at play.

In “Recapitulation,” Field focuses on Vicki Hearne’s work with the dog Bandit, a case study arguing that the master/pet binary be abolished for mutual interpretation without hierarchy. Working to understand Bandit, Hearne approached her “vicious dog case” in a “literary way.” And although Hearne felt poetry couldn’t solve our problems, she also believed that “thinking through problems about language can bring back awareness.” To think and act in a literary way can facilitate communication that attends to unpredictable results. “In teaching someone to love language with us,” writes Field, “we must allow they will say things we didn’t teach them to say.” If language is the architecture of communication, then a poetics can help all types of animals live together.

Relatively dissonant with Hearne is Konrad Lorenz, animal psychologist and opportunist under Nazi rule, who is explored at length in “Exposition: He Told Animal Stories.” Here, science and story face off as Field probes the way Lorenz’s behavioral studies of geese reflect the human desire for narrative. The animal psychologist believed that “our fellow creatures can tell us the most beautiful stories, and that means true stories.” In Lorenz’s claim on truth, Field sees a tendency “to own other creatures’ actions, translate them into our language, extend them our fantasies.” The question is whether Lorenz, an architect of narrative and knowledge, has provided a sustainable design for human and animal existence alike.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Blake Bronson-Bartlett

Blake Bronson-Bartlett is a doctoral candidate in the English Department at the University of Iowa. He is the former managing editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review and is a staff member of the Walt Whitman Archive. He is currently editing a collection of writings on Walt Whitman’s fiction.

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