On the Shelf: Chris Dombrowski

The week’s recommended reading and culture from Orion authors and artists.

While fishing last night sometime between two and three a.m., I heard a great horned owl call from a riverbank cottonwood just as the big waning moon crested a sand dune, and reckoned bird and well-lit sky-hung rock were conversing with each other.

Though this is unlikely, it is utterly possible. There are certainties of which we can’t be certain. Birds may indeed be “holes in heaven through which a man may pass,” as Walter Anderson has it in his Horn Island Diaries, a quote which serves as a section epigraph in poet Tom Crawford’s latest book of poems, The Names of Birds (Sherman Asher, 2011).

The author of five previous books of poetry, recipient of a Pushcart Prize and numerous other awards, Crawford is a meditative-lyric poet who asserts that birds “can enter you from any direction / and a fly-through, even by the common sparrow / can take out the heart” (“The Toll Birds Take”). Although the book’s title implies taxonomy, Crawford’s book is really an avian autobiography, beginning with “Wing”:

When I was eleven
I found a black wing,
just one wing,
on our road.

I was a loaner.
Shy. Afraid a lot.

For a long time
I kept it in my pocket.

If I was really nervous
I’d take it out
and fan it open
like a deck of cards.

Crawford’s reminder—“just one wing”—is fitting since these poems don’t attempt to artificially lift the reader out of the human condition; that is, they aren’t trying to catch a free ride through the firmament on the back of a vireo or a cactus wren (though poetic lift is regularly achieved). Nor are these the poems of an ornithologist, but rather an enthusiast (“Mine was a coarse intelligence, / I knew that, a man / upon whom nuance was wasted,” he writes in “The Enthusiast”) who is equally quickened by the arrival of bird to a feeder, the window of a hamburger joint, or a famous birding destination, as in “Bosque del Apache,” the bulk of which is quoted here:

They gather in the cold
by a lake and then
just stand there, quietly
and stare out
into the darkness.

They love what can’t be
improved on,
first light, bird song,
the perfect hydraulics
of the crane’s legs
that fold back
in a shower of water
as their great wings
lift them all
into the morning sky.

Among these curious,
no reckless enthusiasm.
(It’s not a football game.)
The older ones, too frail
for the cold,
watch from their cars
until the birds are out of sight.

That’s it.

The lake water still trembling
but empty.

One or two
might have taken pictures,
their only show
of attachment.

While governed by a gentle, observant engagement with the world, the poems in The Names of Birds also strike apocalyptic (“You’ll have to pull the Columbus in you / out from behind the wheel, America,” closes one section of “Christopher Columbus Discovers the Tar Sands of Alberta”), and ominous notes, as in the conclusion of “Cowbird” where we watch a cowbird, pacing the spine of a soon-to-be-slaughtered heifer, light “at the last moment / when the big metal door slides open.”

Returning to the idea of autobiography, “Cowbird” begins as a recollection to the “Paiute Packing Company” of the poet’s youth, and deftly links the memory with a present tense evocation of “Whole Foods in Santa Fe, New Mexico, sixty years / later, … bent over the counter picking up packages/ of organically grown beef, reading the labels/ to find out what part of the cow I’m holding.” In this poem, and in others like it, Crawford is at his peak while (shameful pun intended) dovetailing past and present. The birds bring him something from his past, and he brings this something—if not a healing then a balm—to the reader, as he does in “Arrhythmia,” about the hermit thrush:

Ornithologists call its song
a “soft whistle.” But there is no song
without affliction, doctor. No bird, if we’ll listen,
that does not build its secret nest in us
out of old string and dead feathers.

Over and over, Crawford’s generous poems recall something T’u Lung wrote centuries ago: “…being unable to find peace within myself, I made use of the external surroundings to calm my spirit, and being unable to find delight within my heart, I borrowed a landscape to please it. Therefore, strange were my journeys.” Replace “landscape” with “birds,” and we have the essence of Crawford’s poetic: to become a bird, even for a fleeting instant, is strange, wonderfully strange, and these poems are the vivid record of such a metamorphosis.

Chris Dombrowski’s second collection of poems, Earth Again, is forthcoming in spring 2013 from Wayne State University Press. This summer marks his sixteenth as a river guide in Montana. Dombrowski’s poem “Possible Psalm” appeared in the May/June 2009 issue of Orion.

Chris Dombrowski is the author of the memoir Body of Water (Milkweed Editions), a Bloomberg News Best Book of 2016, as well as three full length collections of poetry, most recently Ragged Anthem (WSUP, 2019). His poems have appeared in over a hundred anthologies and journals including Guernica, Gulf Coast, Orion, Poetry, Terrain.org, and The Southern Review. For the better part of two decades, he has taught creative writing to a vast array of age groups, most recently as the William Kittredge Visiting Writer-in-Residence in the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Montana. He lives in Missoula, where he guides the rivers, directs the Beargrass Writing Workshops, and makes his home with his loveably feral family.