You and I both must know that birds are the blessing disseminated. I only knew you eight years ago. But I found you again in the bookstore here. I touched your book like a mirror pureed into pages—it was the you I remember, the you of our brief friendship. I touched the corners and numbers. When I knew you, you weren’t even a writer.
Every time I look, there’s a new bird book out, which is what you’d say: “Look at all the bird writers! Are we all to blame for stealing your idea?”
I’m sure all of our reasons for writing about them are the same, all of us novelists and the poets of the birds, the artists, the painters and sculptors, birds lost in our fingers the way you lose something in sight, the way distance makes a point. I was going to write the bird Moby Dick, and now your long published poem, I see, is exactly this.
I found your book in Warren’s store here in the American west. He thinks books are embers and imagines himself the humble stoker and in a place, no less, where whole mountains burn for no reason, lightning sparking mountain flowers. You are so passionate about what birds are. I read your book standing at the display table, refusing to buy you, to leave with you, feeling poor, and bursting, too vulnerable to open my purse. Warren said, “Ah, him, he’s new,” always stoking, and I said, “I knew him!”
Birds are the most autonomous color.
I found your book the next morning in a friend’s apartment in Seattle; I drove there overnight. She was surprised to see me. It was sitting there already finished, she said—“I just got done.”—on the table, next to a rare copy of Wordsworth’s sister’s journal, which my friend could not open—“It took forever to find, and now I can’t!” She asked again why I showed up and I explained again the shame of losing her friendship—of it having been merely erotic, for why else wouldn’t it last, and then a sexual shame, the shame of one’s openness being ignored, or the pain of being exited sharply. You think about the exit. You eroticize the exit until it melts back in, and leaves again on a chain. Your dreams churn.
“Did you like it?” I asked this friend, who drained (noon now) wine and watched the window like it was constantly taking a serious photograph of her. “Gorgeous brilliance, those birds!” she said. “He knows them well.” At night I went to sleep on her couch wondering what I was doing. Your long poem is titled The Whiteness of the Ibis. You write about birds as the symbol of every symbol, the metaphor, like the whale. You think you’re Beowulf, Melville, me. I read the beginning in the morning wondering where you were.
My friend brought percolated coffee to the couch and I marveled at the horse skull she’d acquired since I’d seen her, which she claimed to have found while doing art in the desert.
“You did art in the desert?”
“I still do.”
I looked around as if the desert were supposed to be there. Why was she so calm? “We used to be so close,” I said. I held your book. I thought of my novel sitting among its mountains in a drawer. (I must have told you in a bar, I remember we went to bars, I remember you once used my knee as a napkin for your mouth, I remember I thought I was clever and I remember I had not even read Moby Dick but already knew that a whale of mine would elate into birds, soaring and re-rising and through the sun pouring, maddening a man. I thought I was flirting. I didn’t know what you would take.)
Bidding my friend goodbye, I drove home from Seattle, stealing your long poem which sat like a dove I was carrying to a hospital. I kept looking at it like its wings bloodied the seat, or it would fly through the window, not knowing it was ill.
I read it through completely, out loud, when I got home, unaware of the fur smearing on my tire, too eager. I ran into the house, the hospital.
The whale does elate, it abstracts into ibises, flying over the ocean, everywhere at once, and someone at sea wants to tether them, to hitch harpoons in their breasts and hoist his ship to who knows where. I cried in my bed, reading this long poem you wrote, how I recited its theme into your samovar-ear.
My friend calls. “Did you take my The Whiteness of the Ibis?”
“I knew him!” I’m telling her.
“Well, you know my address,” she says bitterly.
“We used to be so close,” I say, trying to explain.
“Time doesn’t take everyone with it,” she says with loft, as if she too will become this writer.
“You’re calling me time’s litter?”
“Kittens?” she asks, though time is not animal, it is the mirror of air.
“Don’t you remember? Remember I was going to write a bird Moby Dick? I must have said something. I have told you everything.”
She confesses she never really read your long poem. People are always not really reading poems, like saying you saw a rare bird in the desert which turns out to have been extinct—and you never even went to the desert, or were an artist: You actually killed a horse. But things don’t really ever occur.
Maybe I never knew you.
I’d think that was true if you never dragged my whole knee up to your mouth in the bar—doing something like that is like taking a picture forever. Your heart takes it. Your knee develops in the dark. I don’t even remember what else happened. I only remember that a bird burned in my clitoris on the barstool, its wings full of blood, until it flew out over water (and my heart shot it across the breast). “Was I writing or thinking of writing something like a bird Moby Dick? Did I talk of that in Chicago?”
She says, “I could not say,” like a politician who clearly recalls.
“Don’t you know?” I want to know.
“You come to my home, you throw a moral rant about the horse, and then you steal my book. I only called because the decent thing to do would be to send it back, and that’s it.”
“A fawn was killed on my road and about eight magpies are sitting on its head,” I report. “They are like vultures and angels at the same time. I can’t tell at all if they are pecking or blessing it, or protecting it, eating it.”
At the end of The Whiteness of the Ibis, your birds scatter, disseminating the whale further until the world doesn’t hold.
“When was this?” Warren had wanted to know. He’d moved closer.
“Not here,” I said. “In Chicago.”
“Isn’t your novel about a bird Moby Dick? Isn’t it Monstrous Pictures of Magpies?”
His knee moved my knee.
I saw your name in your book and then matched it with your picture. And then you were gone. Through the leaves the air opened, and you were like color flickering into pepper.
“I have to go, bye!” Which is when I got into my car.
I send my novel to her, where I know I won’t follow, and her book to you, as though the dove had lived.