Book Review of The Wreck of Birds by Rebecca Givens Rolland

Wreck of Birds Photo

The Wreck of Birds by Rebecca Givens Rolland
Bauhan Publishing, 2012
ISBN: 978-0872331549
Reviewed by McKayla Watkins

Rebecca Givens Rolland is a writer, educator, photographer, and consultant. The Wreck of Birds is her debut book of poetry and the winner of the May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize. Rollands’ poems explore life at its intersections: where the forces of nature meet the forces of the body, where the spiritual and emotional worlds meet the physical world, and where history meets the present moment. The book weaves together these threads of experience, and in doing so, reveals the intricacies of the human landscape.

One of the book’s first poems, “Between Panes,” describes this life-found-at-the-intersection:

“…silence
becomes you for
now, a book opens,
garden opens, war
opens, window
floods out, spines
hold every body
in single rooms.”

The segment begins with “silence,” a meditative state associated with the ability to commune both with nature and with the self; the segment then transitions to an open book, the physical doorway through which reader and writer meet; then a garden, war, body. Each subject offers a different glimpse into the window of humanity. Together, these glimpses — these separate window panes — create a fuller picture of the human experience.

In The Wreck of Birds, nature is not simply an external force; it is an internal force, an inextricable part of the human body. Fragments, line breaks, and lack of punctuation in “Little Red Goes to War” create a world of language in which the boundaries between body and earth blur:

“as if dirges could soon be theirs pinched
noses startling like beanstalks sediment
mouths creasing our nostrils’ fields one
side stuffed off with weed-growth then”

The characters in these poems cannot understand themselves without understanding nature, and in the poem “In Her House, Shadow,” nature forcibly transforms the protagonist, Penelope. “The tree’s shadow is in her stomach, / between her toes,” the poem says. But her transformation is far from a peaceful experience. It is wracked with unsettled longing, loneliness, and loss. Penelope attempts to describe the process:

“‘Say the tree is you,’ she says
to a man lounging,
‘and a bird’s resting fitfully inside.
Now, understand
the tree may not be you, the bird
may be lost in the forest…’”

But the man offers no support and merely stares at her, “unnerved.” Soon afterwards, she succumbs to the violent final stages of her transformation:

“it’s cutting off her air, wood grain’s
breaking in circles under her eyes
till she’s bruised, bed-ridden,
no longer an object of desire.”

But nature, perhaps, is not the monster here. Albeit violently, nature offers her a way out — a way to escape the others, who forbid her from using (and therefore defining for herself) the word “home” and who, “caught up / in hunger, don’t notice / the branches creeping up her cheeks.”

Throughout the book, forces of nature are condensed inside the body, as are the abstract elements of spirituality and emotions. The poems localize these large abstractions by linking them to small, specific body parts:

“…No Christ, no love of country
just a forehead smashed to the window,
laughing, hung by its ears.”

With this juxtaposition, the reader, too, is “smashed” out of the spiritual world and back into the physical world. In another poem, “Con,” an elbow is the embodiment of shame. No longer an intangible emotion, shame is now a moveable part of the body. The emotional realm is inextricably entangled in the physical realm:

“…This elbow
a shameful thing
to move. Space now the only
emotion.”

Similarly, the collection plays with the tensions of another boundary: the one between history and the present moment. “I wake and it could be any century, trees / etched into shelves of white,” the narrator says. She continues, “…I turn inward to eyelashes, to a stricter / day. Let that century steal me slowly back. / Let me steel myself. Now north wind.” Natural forces — trees, snow, wind — span the length of past and present, and at the center of it all is the body, the vessel through which we experience the natural, spiritual, and emotional worlds.

“we’re ungrounded with elegant tools
ballpoint in one hand beetroot in another”

One hand holds a ballpoint pen, a symbol of spiritual and emotional sustenance. The other hand holds a beetroot, a symbol of physical sustenance. Although the mortal body is at the center of these “elegant tools,” the landscape is the immortal constant that both precedes and follows the body:

“Let’s not talk of us, of our attempts to be

human, but of the landscape that gave us birth:
cypress branches swept off to the corners, coolly
warning, windup toys left running by our knees.”

What makes up the human experience? How do these threads of experience intertwine with one another? The poem for which the collection is named asks, “Where is the dividing line of natural? Of carrying an entire new earth?” The book erases these dividing lines and flies birdlike across the boundaries of human existence, giving its readers new and unexpected answers to these age-old questions.

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