Contributor’s Marginalia: Matthew Thorburn on “Birds of Ohio” by Kathryn Nuernberger
I’m no ornithologist, but birds always catch my eye. At the Bronx Zoo, I gravitate toward the Inca terns and Magellanic penguins in the sea bird aviary. And walking my neighborhood I’ll often stop to watch a bright fillip of blue or red dart from branch to branch before disappearing into the trees. So when my copy of 32 Poems arrived, naturally it was Kathryn Nuernberger’s “Birds of Ohio” I turned to first. Nuernberger’s title made me think of Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America—and like one of Moore’s short stories, this poem soon reveals how ours is an off-kilter and disturbing world.
Structurally, “Birds of Ohio” has the feel of a loosely woven nest: one long stanza with tab-sized gaps here and there where the light shines through. It is, as advertised, a rundown of the state’s birds. And the list form fosters a riffing energy as each bird—“the coal ash chickadee,” “the birds who don’t know / north from south”—is added to this odd flock.
But within this open structure Nuernberger shows her precise way with language, creating both arresting images and lines you need to read aloud to appreciate their sounds. Among these birds, for instance, are “Some / that burrow in the gob and there lay eggs like lost / buckeyes….” Another bird “toe-holds a sunflower / seed and bills it like a jackhammer.” The nouns-as-verbs work perfectly here to make a familiar scene feel strange. That linebreak is sharp too.
Some of Nuernberger’s birds seem normal enough, like the one that “nests the cliff-face of a culvert and trestle bridge” or the one “afraid to cross the shotgunner’s lake.” But then there’s “the bird / that is actually the tiniest copse of trees left / on Starve Island” and “the ones who trip over the tiniest / fiddles of their feet.” I have to admit it took me a couple of reads to realize just what the poem is doing. Birds don’t live only in the air, of course; they land and are part of the landscape. “Birds of Ohio” is about Ohio as much as it’s about birds—or rather, it’s about what living in this post-industrial, rust-belt state has done to the birds.
That “coal ash chickadee” described above is the “little patron saint atop a slate roof in each little city / of the black diamond.” Again Nuernberger’s linebreak, falling between chickadee and little, does its work: what briefly feels like a clever way to say gray-black quickly proves to be literal: one effect of coal mining is coal dust-covered birds. Much of what at first seems metaphorical (at least it did to me) becomes on re-reading a more literal and disturbing take on how the energy industry has hurt the birds of Ohio. “There are birds that cannot land and / cannot perch,” Nuernberger writes, and those birds who lost their north-south sense of direction can no longer migrate. They “stay here and freeze into glass / on the window sill.”
What at first seems an odd poem of vivid, surprising imagery and nifty turns of phrase turns out to also be a sneak-up-on-you-sideways poem of witness. And it’s that much more compelling and fascinating for operating at both levels at once.
“Birds of Ohio” is, finally, a lament. The poem ends not with a bird or even a nest, but with a bleak, wrecked landscape. In the poem’s closing lines, Nuernberger’s artful similes show us what’s no longer there:
…the pitch-squeak backyard rigs pumping their plots
up and down the banks of our collapsed-mine acid creek
which is orange as a bird and silver as a nest.
Matthew Thorburn is the author of three books of poems, including This Time Tomorrow (Waywiser Press, 2013) and Every Possible Blue (CW Books, 2012). He lives and works in New York City. For more information, visit www.matthewthorburn.net. His poems, “At Badaling,” and “After the War” appear with Kathryn Nuernberger’s “Birds of Ohio” in 32 Poems 10.2.