My partner found a dead hummingbird in his classroom the other day and brought it home, its neck broken by a closed window. Although it didn’t look dead yet, its tiny feathers had begun to lose their sheen. He saved it for me, knowing I collect feathers, but I couldn’t bear to take them from the little bird. Who could disassemble anything that looks that much like a baby. I asked him if we could bury it when I got home. The ants had already come streaming in and begun to take apart the tiny body. He wrapped it in paper, but nothing discourages the ants, not the drought, and not the flooding rains.
Everything I read becomes me and disappears too. My partner calls this synesthesia; my therapist calls it trauma. This poem is full of smashing into things as a way of leaving or of belonging, of changing minds, of disappearing into the heat, of changing into something else. I remember the times I disappeared into the heat. This poem takes place in Massachusetts, but the short lines and the breaks in this poem remind me of the Georgia humidity and gasping for breath. If you erase yourself what is left but landscape, which is more silent than thought. If silence is disappearing a hateful voice. Which mine did (disappear). So much in this poem starts out big and then diverts your attention to the mundane, reminds you that you’re coronating a “stupid bird,” you’re marking territory with a lawn chair, with drying linens, with your body, with salt.
Let’s talk about coronation and disrobing. Let’s talk about floating, and flags, and mistaken identity. Spells, protection, witches/which is. Guests and ghosts and belonging. Blood and things that drain. There is so much here to talk about. And the trauma that runs through this poem like a humming land-wound, a gap in the ground. Is it the landscape, or a body, that carries this sadness? Maybe we can talk about mistaken identity. Does the speaker become a sparrow or misidentify it? An American sparrow is actually in the bunting family, not a sparrow at all—there are no sparrows in the U.S.—we just call them that. And a bunting draped on a window is a kind of flag. Hummingbirds are strictly American and don’t exist in Great Britain. The closest thing to a hummingbird there is a kind of moth, and there are hundreds of cases of mistaken identity each year.
Look where the speaker haunts these clues: “we all get in the water / in these months.” There are witches here, in this poem. What else? “in massachusetts / i was told i’m nothing / if not a circle of salt.” This is a comfort: there is protection here, in saltiness, its curative powers, in the biblical looking back, and the circle of salt, and the ocean later a circle of salt, and the drowning is so much of it in the air, the river, the ocean--that it begins to feel like protection too, the circles of salt appear everywhere, in your sweat, in your blood, in Florida. What is a peninsula but a circle of salt that has been broken? What is a pizza but a circle of salted dough? What is sweat but a circle of salt you are encased in everywhere, you can’t escape that kind of protection. What is a crown but a circle of protection you consent to wear, and so all the coronations come in here too. But every witch reference and every protection takes a turn, calls to mind something more ordinary (“by drowning in the river” moves to “of blood mosquitoes / have made for me”), as if this vulgarization of the sacred is what we have to do to get by in a world that won’t have us.
The bird smashes into the window, the surf smashes into the rocks that the speaker also smashes into, and the line breaks smash the thoughts into fragments that rearrange how the reader can interpret any number of the images on the page. Who can tell what anything is, or how to smash yourself into something the proper way to understand it? Maybe that’s how an identity becomes fragmented, or how we see ourselves so bent for the escaping. I smash myself into this poem thinking I can never crack it, in spite of all this recognition, or maybe because of it.
Did I mention all the burning in this poem? As for the last image, the flag so tattered it consists only of the red stripes, the American citizenship test says this: “It is important that the fire be fairly large and of sufficient intensity to ensure complete burning of the flag.” That feels like a good place to rest my hands.
Lauren Traetto is the SF Director of Vouched Books and is part of the collective responsible for THE REJECTED, a series of alternative offsite panels at AWP. In her role at a national healthcare nonprofit, she directs and manages a communication-based initiative for creating revolutionary change in organizational culture. She holds/has held positions as a contributing editor for FANZINE, staff member of Quiet Lightning, and organizer and co-host of Scene Missing SF. Her work centers on creating and modeling safe spaces within the literary communities of the Bay Area and beyond to address issues of violence and othering.