Source: Poetry Foundation


As far as I was aware, I was not a bird lover. There was an incident with a budgie at preschool, for which I was expelled, and I remember drunken attempts to shoot sparrows when I was a teenager. But a few years back I became interested in Edward Lear, and Lear was interested in birds (his first exhibited painting was called Dead Birds). Writing an essay on him was meant to be a distraction from imminent parenthood, particularly the thought of being a father to a son. The piece wasn’t going well and I sympathized when I came across Lear’s plea to William Holman Hunt for painterly guidance: “If you cannot tell me how the shadows of the blessed jackdaws will fall I don’t know what I shall do.” Coincidentally—or, not uncoincidentally—he spoke elsewhere 
of being in a state of “knowingnothingatallaboutwhatoneisgoingtodo-ness.” I took this as a cue—and an excuse: the essay would be “about” not knowing what one is about. Pleased that I now had a subject, I stopped writing and went for a run.

As I turned a corner toward the end of my route, I was met by a masked figure in camouflage gear holding a gun. In the slowest slow motion, he raised a hand and gave a thumbs-up. The gesture somehow acted as a pledge of reasonableness and as a summons to silence. I was afraid and embarrassed—embarrassed at my fear—so I found myself doing the reasonable, silent thing and running straight past him. I think I even slowed my pace so as to communicate to myself, the gunman, and the universe in general that nothing unusual was transpiring. As I jogged away, I looked into the field and saw: a stake; a distressed pigeon tied to the stake; several dead and wounded birds scattered round the pigeon. A flapping, florid mess. I wanted to object but I felt like a trespassing naïf, a person whose objections didn’t belong there.

My essay’s working title was “Edward Lear’s Lines of Flight.” I liked the title so much I hoped it would write the thing for me. It could be something to do with birds and something to do with being on the run. The Oxford English Dictionary also links the word “flight” to “caprice” as well as to a wish “to make trial of one’s powers,” and Lear’s work was both whimsical and well-flighted. His first book wasn’t in fact The Book of Nonsense, but a pioneering study in natural history: Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots. The shift from long to short title caught my eye: the parrots might be part of a family, or they might not. The more I studied Lear, the more I wondered whether he was running from or toward a dream of family (and whether I was projecting my own indecisions onto him). What does the life of my reading have to do with a reading of my life? Even that way of putting it seems too neat, seems like a betrayal of the confusion that makes the question a real one for me. Meanwhile, as I was reading up for the essay, I learnt two things: that, having become estranged from his father, Lear was sometimes on the lookout for a new one (his nickname for Holman Hunt was “Daddy”); and that the origin of bird is unknown (early meanings include “offspring,” “young,” and “son [Obsolete]”). I learnt these things and then I forgot them.

Lyric cosmogony is a tale of ruffled feathers. Before Hermes grows up to be Zeus’s wingman, it’s not clear whose side he’s on—or from. Product of an encounter between Zeus and Maia, a shy nymph who avoided the company of the gods, his kin ties are ambiguous (he could be seen as high-born or misbegotten). On the day of his birth he invents the lyre and, from the start, his way with words is a way of carving a space for himself within the family: “My plan is to have a share of Apollo’s power. If my father will not give it me, I will seek—and I am able—to be the prince of thieves.” As wing-heeled wordsmith and trickster, no god flies or lies faster than Hermes. Having stolen Apollo’s cattle, he sings and plays so sweetly that he lures his brother into pardoning him. He then gifts the lyre to Apollo, who swears an oath in gratitude: “If a man comes to me guided by the call and flight of ominous birds, he will profit from my words.”

Apollo bequeaths the lyre to Orpheus, one of many attuned to birds and words. The constellation Lyra was represented by ancient cultures as a bird, as a harp, sometimes even as a bird holding a harp, and when later poets reach for the stars their avian alter egos become signs of soulful transcendence (Percy Shelley calls the skylark an “unbodied joy”). Lear was responsive to such calls from the blue, but he remained adamant that birds have bodies. “Should any transmigration take place at my decease,” he noted, “I am sure my soul would be uncomfortable in anything but one of the Psittacidae.” To be part of the lyrical family is to play around with the tropings of Hermes. And Hermes is a far-fetched, far-reaching forebear of poetry because he raises a question about one’s proper relation to forebears; if he is a conduit for smooth transition, he’s also an agitator for sudden transgression. In the Homeric hymn to Hermes, it’s sometimes hard to know whether the boy is deploying or stealing Zeus’s thunder, fulfilling his father’s divine plans or messing with them. Ali Smith sees him as “above all god of perfect timing, god of canny slippage.” If he is both these things at once, though, then he must also be the founding father (or shape-shifting son) of coincidence.

According to the OED, a coincidence is “a notable concurrence of events or circumstances having no apparent causal connection.” No apparent connection. So there might be one. Apparent, a parent. Lear liked to toy with this concurrence. He invented his own nonsense word, “parient,” and often spoke of what was “apariently” the case, as though drawn to wondering what, if anything, genealogy could count for. When thinking about whether “Fate” could be deciphered from one’s parentage, Emerson observed that “some people are made up of rhyme, coincidence, omen, periodicity, and presage: they meet the person they seek.” This could signal transference (to meet the person I seek is to meet my parents … again), but what Emerson wants to stress is that people in touch with their inner Hermes can be creative of what they are—“made up” in more ways than one. (“When a god wishes to ride,” he adds, “any chip or pebble will bud and shoot out winged feet.”) Rhyme, coincidence, omen. Coincidence is the space between happenstance and necessity, or the place where they swap their meanings. There are no perfect rhymes for coincidence; providence isn’t exactly the word’s partner in crime, but its fickle off-rhyme.

Whatever else poetry has given me, it has given me more coincidences—the romance of motifs without the banality of motives. Last year, because I was reading James Schuyler and because I was on my way to New York, a friend I was later to meet in Providence sent me a collection of Schuyler’s letters. It was called  Just the Thing and it came with a postcard on which my friend had written: “I believe this book will work for you. Look forward to seeing you in the new world.” As I read the letters on the train down from Boston, lines from Schuyler’s poetry flashed into view. “The green of the tulip stems and leaves/like something I can’t remember.” When I arrived in New York, as I came out of the station I saw a man begging. But he wasn’t only begging; perched on him were lots of little birds agitating for the crumbs in his hands. His stillness looked like tiredness, and like an effort to keep them close. The scene brought back the shooter and those dead birds from a few years earlier, and, behind that, another memory I felt I wasn’t quite seeing, or having. That evening I reread Schuyler’s “The Morning of the Poem” in my hotel room and came across his love of those moments “when something you really enjoy/Unexpectedly arrives, like the postcard I got this morning.” I picked up the postcard that had come with the gift of the letters and saw—or, took in—the photo on the front for the first time:

Edith Tudor Hart, <em>Man with Bird, Tyneside</em>, c. 1937, courtesy of Peter Suschitzky
Edith Tudor Hart, Man with Bird, Tyneside, c. 1937, courtesy of Peter Suschitzky

Whenever I look for coincidences, they seem whimsical; whenever I look at them, they seem inexorable. I suppose they are made, not found—part of the repertoire of a self that longs to tally with itself. Yet the preternaturalness of the experience brings connection without cohesion. As parable and riddle, promise of discovery and herald of disarray, coincidence is something akin to déjà vu. Elsewhere in “The Morning of the Poem” Schuyler speaks of a “Strange and not unwonderful feeling, I have experienced this, this/light, these trees, these birds.” A lot of people, he says, conceive the state as a symptom of schizophrenia:

                               but I subscribe to a simpler explanation:
One lobe of the brain registers the event, what in simple reality
is said or happens or is seen, while the other
Lobe takes it in a split second, an infinitesimal split second
later, so, in a sense, there is a real déjà vu,
Half the brain has experienced the experience: “I have been here
before”: you have.

I don’t know what explanation I subscribe to, but I know what I submit to: the infinitesimal, split-second delays over the line-ends for “is,” “later,” and “before.” Schuyler’s form plays accomplice to the eddyings, glitches, and double takes of experience, to the way I make sense of time, make sense in it. And although lyric is often composed and received as though everything were happening now—a miraculous transcript of the unfolding present—the miracle is part mirage. The writer has been here before, because now is already past when it makes its way into the mind and then onto the paper. Life is lived not so much in the moment but a little to the side of it.

“This/light, these trees, these birds.” Schuyler’s explanation of déjà vu hit me as a form of déjà lu. It recalled Henri Bergson’s claim that the experience is “a memory of the present,” along with his suggestion that people especially subject to déjà vu are liable to finding familiar words strange. I often get that feeling when reading, and I never find language more bizarre than when I’m reading poetry, letting the actual turn aporetic. If things are going well I read in a dreamy way, to no particular end. And when I’m not looking to the present as a portal to the future, but instead going over the familiar as a modality of the strange, then my past has time to hunt me down.

Reading Lear, I came across a primal scene. Or it came across me. Looking back over his episodes of depression, he wrote:

The earliest of all the morbidnesses I can recollect must have been somewhere around 1819—when my Father took me to a field near Highgate, where there was a rural performance of gymnastic 
clowns … I can recollect crying half the night after all the small gaiety broke up—& also suffering for days at the memory of the past scene.

Those clowns were part of the airborne world of Pierrot, whose name came from the French for “house sparrow” and for “parrot.” What struck me, though, wasn’t just Lear’s memory of the performance, but of the man who’d introduced him to it. Abandon extends to abandonment; like pleasure itself, his father would come and go. As I read, fragments of my own past obtruded themselves on Lear’s as I remembered my father taking me to a circus. Sand in a ring, people on poles, sequins in air. And then, perhaps because circuses are always, in some unavoidable way, flying, I had a sort of aural hallucination, heard my father’s glee during one of his many excruciating renditions of Monty Python. The shopkeeper’s reply to the customer’s complaint about the ex-parrot—“No no he’s not dead, he’s, he’s restin’”—now reads as a commentary on what my father means to me.

Like déjà vu, poetry intimates that the past is never quite over and done with. Lear couldn’t leave those flying wonders behind, and his nonsense often recasts their movements into new shapes:

       Calico Pie
The little birds fly
Down to the calico tree,
Their wings were blue,
And they sang “Tilly-loo!”
Till away they flew, –
And they never came back to me!
They never came back!
They never came back!
They never came back to me!
—From Calico Pie

It’s as though the poem is discovering itself—rediscovering and re-
experiencing its losses—as it goes along. The refrain is an endlessly enacted, sorrowing déjà vu. And the feeling is extended by a temporal oddity in the second line, discovered only belatedly through the very act of reading. “Fly” puts the birds—rather than the memory of them—directly in front of our eyes, before the stanza’s change of tense makes us actually feel the loss. Or maybe Lear’s cognizance of separation is so powerful that those long-absent loves return too vividly in his mind’s eye. Fly, flew. When my memories of circuses and fathers dovetail with Lear’s, although I don’t know exactly what he means, I know how he means. Perhaps I even know what Wallace Stevens was getting at when he claimed that “There is no wing like meaning.”

If déjà vu is myself coinciding with myself, the experience still feels hazy. This is probably why, if someone is present, I usually ask, “Did you just get déjà vu?,” as though complicity holds the promise of clarification—or even a kind of fulfillment of the experience. The reply is always: “No.” Schuyler once observed that “Often a poem ‘happens’ to the writer in exactly the same way that it ‘happens’ to someone who reads it.” “Exactly” sounds credulous. But I’d rather be credulous than forgo an impossible possibility: déjà vu for two. My foundational moments of reading have been the co-incidence of my feelings and somebody else’s words, or the peculiarity of my feelings as released by their words. The writer’s past becomes the memory, invention, and derangement of my present. “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” Emerson’s claim rings true, especially the vistas of implication opened up by “rejected” and “alienated.” Majesty has always been a little unapproachable.

Things started to go wrong at school when I was seven. (Parents’ evenings would often begin with the words, “Mrs. Bevis, Matthew is not a malicious boy, but …”) We’d just moved to Yorkshire for my father’s work, and his job soon turned into his means of escaping the family as he started to travel a lot for business. I became distracted, disruptive, and my teacher eventually recommended that I see a child psychologist. Around this time, I got lost in a story. I took to the weird title of Barry Hines’s novel A Kestrel for a Knave—and to the young hero, Billy Casper, who drily observes: “My dad’s away.” “Away” is his euphemism for “gone, perhaps for good.” Meanwhile, Billy is on a quest. “Got any books on hawks, missis?” The librarian behind the counter is obstructive (the boy doesn’t have a library card) so he ends up stealing a guide to falconry from a nearby bookshop. I remember being delighted that he’d filched it. It was Billy’s right and his trespass to have that book. His most important pleasures needed to be stolen ones, and I felt the same way about the book I was reading.

Having done his research, Billy steals a kestrel chick from its nest, names her Kes, and trains her up. Hines hardly ever describes his hero from the inside, but I didn’t need to be told what the boy thought; I only wanted to watch him like a hawk. And I think I also wanted to be watched by him. It was more the quality than the object of Billy’s attention that got to me. Kes’s strength, her fury of instinct, is something he needs to introject. She is always more than his pet project, as he explains when showing her to his teacher:

Folks stop me and say, “Is it tame?” Is it heck tame, it’s trained that’s all. It’s fierce, an’ it’s wild, an’ it’s not bothered about anybody, not even about me right. And that’s why it’s great….         Do you know, Sir, I feel as though she’s doin’ me a favour just lettin’ me stand here.

And Billy, too, can’t be tamed, which makes him Kes’s secret sharer (he’s uncomfortable at school and won’t be taught). What Kes was to Billy, Billy was to me: a life beyond any designs I might have on it, a life that spoke to mine through its very beyond-ness. Neither bird nor boy were quite at liberty, but they remained at large.

“You know that novel you wrote, A Kestrel for a Knave? … Did you write it on purpose or by accident?” Faced with this question from a secondary-school pupil, Hines was lost for an answer. The reply I fantasize for him is the one I’d often venture when I was a kid: “Accidentally on purpose.” This would give him a place in a long line of those whose words fly true because of a bewilderment about where they come from. Plato has Socrates say that a poet is “a winged thing,” a creature unable to compose until he is out of his senses. Delirium fosters divination: truly poetic writing is auspicious, filled with omens (ornis is Greek for “bird” and “omen”; the Latin auspicium/auspex means “one who looks at birds”). As a boy, I didn’t need to dig around in word-roots to feel the power of Hines’s language. I think the book put me in touch with an uncertainty about whether or not things augured well—and about whether I could learn to conjure (rather than merely cope) with the future. Forty years later, I like knowing that perched behind Socrates’s term for the poet is the Homeric coinage epea pteroenta—“winged words”—but what I needed to know and claim for myself back then was a feeling, or a capacity. Billy’s last words in the book arrive when he is truly beside himself. He shouts them as he takes flight from his house having learnt that his older brother Jud has killed Kes, and they came home to me as winged words: “You’ll not catch me! You’ll never catch me.”

“Matthew, I won’t tell you again …” I draw a blank when trying to recall what my father was telling me, but I remember mimicking him under my breath as I turned away. He heard, which led to a walloping. I must have been around eight. When I attempt to picture it, I can only view myself from above, bent over his knee, rather than seeing whatever I must have been seeing—the floor? his legs?—at the time. Or maybe I had my eyes closed. If this is the myth of my life, I can’t tell whether I’m Daedalus or Icarus, fathering or falling into the memory. Or falling  for it: imagining the scene, I’m not shocked or sad or afraid; I think I feel pleasure. Not just at stage-managing the punishment, but at hearing the words which caused it, how I echoed him—along with the sense that what I said could matter so much. Part of me was insisting “you’ll never catch me,” yet I was also asking to be caught. I suspect the urge to replay the scene to myself now is an adaptation—a reinvention—of my desire to parrot his words back then.

It is only in the realm of fiction that we find the plurality of lives we need, Freud observed. But my fictions are also a part of my life. This may be why, when narrating my memories, feeling their uncanniness as bound up with the compulsion to repeat, I don’t always experience the uncanny as frightening. Heimlich is sometimes applied to animals that are “tame,” but it may refer to things that are “inscrutable,” and words are one such animal. The site of the uncanny, Freud claims, will always be an area in which I am unsure of my way around but in which I also want to say, “I know this place, I’ve been here before.” That sounds like a spatial version of déjà vu—and like the place I’m in right now, the place I’m often in when writing: discovering myself as the already seen, stalking and being stalked by thoughts I’ve somehow already had.

I was first drawn to Lear’s poetry (I think) because his nonsense seemed unwitting yet telling. Telling because unwitting. I’d become agitated by knowingness and wanted to think comparatively—or, as Lear put it, “come-parrot-ifly”—without necessarily thinking coherently. “It is very likely that I am wrong & talking nonsense,” he wrote to a friend, adding that this is what “poets & parrots” do. “Very likely” is a nice touch: it’s hard to be entirely sure whether you’re speaking nonsense or sense. And when they echo the words they hear, parrots—like poets and insubordinate children—get more out of them than their owner-parents bargained for. (Tennyson recalled the parrot from his childhood: when his father sat the family down to pray, the bird murmured from the corner: “Oh God.”)

The parrot is uncanny not simply because it is the talking animal, but because, in mimicking me, it reminds me that I am a mimic. The bird starts from where I start: drawn to imitation, speaking a language it doesn’t wholly understand. When I was naming the beasts, the first word I spoke was not “da-da,” but “dudu.” It means “insect.” I lived in Nairobi until I was two (we were always moving because of my father’s need to stay on the move) and my earliest forays into language were in Swahili. I loved dudus and was often caught tying string to their legs to make them mine. A little while ago, pondering what else this word might say about me, and whether some part of me had been lost in translation, I looked it up: “dudu: from Arabic, tūtaq: parrot.” It’s something and nothing, but it made me wonder: does my present parrot my past, or vice versa?

I was around thirteen or fourteen when it happened. I had a portable television in my bedroom and I’d stay up after the rest of the family had gone to sleep, usually hoping for sex from some late-night film. On this occasion I was seduced by a title credit and a line of poetry: “Fantasy Films presents … One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Jack Nicholson, playing Randle McMurphy, says early on that, besides being lazy, “I fight and fuck too much.” Although it quickly became clear that this wasn’t going to be that kind of film, McMurphy was one of the most exciting, attractive, alive things I’d ever seen. What they did to him at the end made the world different. I remember feeling that everyone in my house should be woken up and told about it. And I remember feeling unable to leave my bedroom.

I could only watch TV on the weekends because I was home from boarding school. Being a weekly-boarder was a condition of my having received an assisted place, and the assistance was needed because my father had stopped paying maintenance. (One Christmas a few years earlier, he flew home from a business trip to tell my mother he was never coming back; then he left for the US and stopped contacting us.) I hated being forced to leave my mother because my father had chosen to do precisely that, and I soon declined to be grateful for my scholarship, opted out of studying, and started to fight and steal things. Fighting lost its appeal because it was too hard, and stealing became boring because it was too easy, so I started up a card school. Many of the boys were wealthy so I taught them seven-card stud and blackjack, which led to other kinds of trouble. Looking back at McMurphy now, he seems like a latter-day Hermes (god of thieving and gambling, among other things), and my response to him was probably something else before it was moral. The fact that he ran a casino from the tub room; the fact that some patients were there willingly while he felt he’d been tricked into his own incarceration; even the fact of the room layout and the all-maleness of it (rows and rows of dormitory beds)—all these things were familiar without my quite recognizing them at the time.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest stays silent about its title, although Ken Kesey’s book offers a clue. After being subjected to electroconvulsive therapy, the man-mountain Chief Bromden recalls how, when he was a boy, his grandmother used to play a nursery-rhyme game with him. And then the poetry comes flooding back, like a sickness or a cure:

Ting. Tingle, tingle, tremble toes, she’s a good fisherman, catches hens, puts ’em inna pens … wire blier, limber lock, three geese inna flock … one flew east, one flew west, one flew over the cuckoo’s nest … O-U-T spells out … goose swoops down and plucks you out.

One interpretation of these bewitching lines would be: Cuckoo’s Nest has become the hospital where the men have gone or are going cuckoo; Mrs. Tingle Tangle Toes is now Nurse Ratched (“catching hens”); and Goose is McMurphy, who has earlier described himself as “Bull Goose Loony” and is always calling the other patients “birds.” The whole flock becomes portentous: Bromden will eventually be plucked out by McMurphy’s example, will refuse to be a jailbird, and will fly from the hospital.

But before interpretation there is experience. What stayed with me, and what stopped me from sleeping for months, was not a lesson or an allegory, but everything that Nicholson managed to pour into McMurphy’s expressions, pre- and post-lobotomy, and Bromden’s beautiful face as he fell in love with his friend. Toward the end, Bromden speaks to McMurphy from his bed about another coinciding that is coming into focus for him:

My pop was real big. He did like he pleased. That’s why everybody worked on him … I’m not saying they killed him. They just worked on him, the way they’re working on you.

This was what I couldn’t shake: the image of a father who did like he pleased. A man who was to be admired and feared, envied and pitied, copied and resisted. Later, as I lay awake in the school dormitory, I think I must have known that both the fact and the fiction of this man were going to 
be needed.

When I think about my father, I think about taking off. He always seemed agitated, en route. The reason we moved south for the period leading up to the divorce was because he wanted to live close to Heathrow. We would sometimes see him to the airport to wave goodbye, and the first time I traveled on a plane by myself, as a teenager, was to visit him. Decades later, after my son Noah turned four, and after trying and failing to reconcile with my father (his last text message to me read simply: “Fuck off and have a nice life”), I flew to America to present work on Lear.

It was my first trip abroad since Noah was born. While I was away he started wetting the bed, and the insomnia I’d suffered at boarding school returned. I’m still not clear which Lear I was “identifying” with: the boy who’d been left, or the man who was in the habit of leaving (like my father, Lear had epilepsy; and, like my father, he would sometimes convince himself that both his work and his condition required  him to travel). I was in the US to speak about what Lear might have meant when he confessed “verily I am an odd bird,” and about the poet’s handling of new meanings of the word bird which came into being during his lifetime: “jocularly, a man … an exceptionally smart or accomplished person (frequently ironical).” One of the ironies of accomplishment is the suspicion that my critical work is a commentary on my life; another is that my courting of this suspicion is itself suspect, a way of making everything coincide with me.

To be a man is to know that relations stop nowhere, yet to be a man “jocularly” is to sense that I’m absurdly wooing the random. When I’m using poetry to think about fatherhood (and fatherhood to think about poetry), the more I think the less sure I am of the distinction between a worked-out response and a worked-up one. Take one of Lear’s great admirers, and take “Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away/Quite leisurely from the disaster.” On coming across these lines in my late teens, I took them personally. W.H. Auden’s reading of the painting, and the painting’s reading of Ovid, was clear enough: the son is nothing special, the story apparently-
apariently said. But when I recently returned to check the details, other things sought me out. In the painting, bottom-right foreground, just below Icarus’s flailing limbs: a partridge. Earlier in the Metamorphoses, in a fit of jealousy Daedalus tries to kill his sister’s son by pushing him over a cliff (the boy is a competitor of sorts because he is himself a promising inventor). Minerva intervenes by gifting the boy feathers as he falls, turning him into a partridge (“his inborn energy was transferred to swift wings and feet”). Later, as Daedalus is burying Icarus, the partridge reappears, cackling joyfully as a lasting reproach to his would-be murderer. So the tale might not be a parable for upstart sons who ignore the strictures of their fathers, but a lesson to fathers who seek to control or sabotage the wayward energies of the younger generation. Perhaps the co-incidence of both options is a warning to those who contrive to spin morals out of stories.

Who is to blame, and for what? Inquiries into fatherhood and sonship are less urgent (and less answerable) when ventured via the readable unreadability of poetry. Coincidence could be a metaphor for fate or for chance. 
I read it as metaphor for metaphor, a sign of the mind’s need to create the world through which it flies. The aviary of my experience is a pandemonium of parrots, a hovering of  kestrels, a kit of pigeons, an asylum of cuckoos. 
A poiesis—or a coincidence—of birds. What may connect these recollections in not-quite-tranquility is the image of someone who is or isn’t tending to a smaller creature. Or they may present themselves as different ways to orbit the significance of a distant man.

In memory and in dream, my father comes to me—comes at me—as flighty. He’s either funny or angry (I can’t ever picture him as calm). He loved silliness, jokes, puns, wordplay; and, whatever else it entails, the coincidence of my being so transparently his son seems to involve a Learical-lyrical response to psychodrama. When in search of the trans (not simply the parent) inside the transparent, even the spurious, curious coincidence of an anagram will suffice. Once the “id” is driven out of coincidences, all that’s left is “conscience.” If coincidence is driven by the fatherly superego of 
conscience, I’m at risk of becoming too faithful a disciple, a beleaguered clairvoyant, a preemptive conspiracy theorist of my own experience. “Why do these things always happen to me?” “Because I deserve them, and because, like him, I’m the type of person who …” But when conscience steps back and the id takes center stage, less plangent dialogues can be entertained. “Why do I always happen to these things?” “Because they deserve me.” “Because because.” If my desires are my own, then I reserve the right to remake them, or to refuse to keep my promises to them, or to unknow them in the name of a past and future that remain cryptic.

Noah had just turned four when I introduced him to Lear’s poems. Any thought of exegetical-parental authority was soon put to flight:

       Calico Pie
The little birds fly
Down to the calico tree,
Their wings were blue,
And they sang “Tilly-loo!”
Till away they flew, –
And they never came back to me!
They never came back!
They never came back!
They never came back to me!

After hearing this opening stanza, Noah asked: “Where are the birds not coming back to, then?” The longer I looked, the less beside the point I found the question. I suppose I’d always assumed that the speaker was close to the calico tree, but the shift to the past tense helps to cut him adrift. He is as lost, as unplaceable, as the birds. He’s subsequently left by fish, mice, and other creatures; the last verse begins, “Calico Drum,/The Grasshoppers come,” only then to tell readers that “they never came back!” Which is it to be: “come” or “never came”? A year on, I read the poem to Noah again. Twelve months older and wiser, he listened to the whole thing and then said: “Whoever this ‘me’ is, he has lots of pets, doesn’t he?” This also appears to be part of the exposed yet surefooted magic of the thing; the song itself keeps returning the things that are lost, as though dispossession could, for a flying moment, be answered through the possession of a musical spell. Playing the calico drum and charming the animals with a tune, the speaker is a would-be Orpheus.

“Whoever this ‘me’ is …” Reading as a father, I hear Lear’s speaker as a bereft parent whose fledglings have flown the nest. Reading as my son, 
I imagine the speaker as a child who plays a Freudian fort/da game by bringing his pet toys back from the dead. Reading as both father and son, what 
I can’t get out of my head is Lear’s refrain, which—no matter how mournful, or shocked, or even angry—is such a self-pleasuring performance, so satisfying to intone. Something about the way the tune worked on Noah is characteristic of how he encounters his experience—or of how I encounter Noah. Being with him, I often have an inkling that I’ve been here before, been where he is, and that I’m here (and there) again. The state is not exactly déjà vu, but not not déjà vu either. It’s a strange twist on the idea that the child is father of the man, and it’s not dissimilar to how I often feel when I’m being read by a poem: a “whoever-this-‘me’-is” feeling is combined with a “lots-of-pets” feeling.

To fathom and unfathom myself via this sense of perplexed potential is always to wonder a little about what first got me going. Talking with my mother a few weeks ago, I told her about one of my earliest memories. She nodded, recalled the house where it happened, and said that we’d moved there from Colchester. That brought something else half into view. “Didn’t we used to go to a friend’s house? It had several flights of stairs. They had lovely bannisters.” “Yes,” she said, “that was George and Esther’s house. You would have been around three then. George was in his eighties. He loved you.” I couldn’t picture George, or Esther, or anything other than the gorgeous curve of their bannister. And then my mother said, “He kept canaries in the cellar. You were fascinated by them.” An ignition. Stairs, a window, wings—a blur of bars and movement—along with a feeling of gratified aloneness. My mother couldn’t remember whether I went down to see the birds by myself or whether George was with me, but she added: “You were never scared of wandering off, and had no sense of danger, so it was hard to keep an eye on you.” She didn’t herself enjoy going to the cellar very much, she told me, because she’d always disliked seeing birds in captivity. And then she recalled an exchange after I returned from looking at them one time. “But they’re in cages, Matthew.” “Yes,” I said, “but they’ve got lots of room.”

Originally Published: March 2nd, 2020

Matthew Bevis’s most recent book is Wordsworth’s Fun (University of Chicago Press, 2019)

Source: Poetry Foundation

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