Keith S. Wilson's "I Find Myself Defending Pigeons"
Thoughts on ideology, wonder, and...pigeons.
I Find Myself Defending Pigeons
I love how you never find their bodies, how they never rest their eyes. I love how their breasts are comforters unfolding by their breath. I love that pigeons live in the city, that underestimation never stopped a pigeon from unlatching itself or being old. I want them all unspooling in the air, and bridges that are half sigh and half pigeon. I want to harbor their coo and utilize it for energy. I want to learn to use them the way they want to be used. I want to pigeontail into a quiet night, to let their oddness sit in our hands. You can never know a language until you quiet your own. I want people to write about them. Their leaving ships for land, or standing on their own on a marble statue in the shimmer of a field. I want to talk about the term rock dove, argue over whether or not it's imperialist. I want the media to implicate us in the pigeon problem, for a couple to sit with their asparagus and kids and realize none of this is far from them, whatever we think. I want oils and watercolors and inks. I want still life with pigeons, since not a one has ever been portrayed with a soul: a flight of them around old bread. And how they're all the same. How all the world is here with them in hate, since they are rats adorned with angel wings, and the children down the street are free to chase their drag: they want to see a pigeon's rouge entirely. Let the pigeon have her pigment. Consider the pigeon's brown and green and everything, the brandishing of his nakedness to the sun, as if nothing is absolute. I love the pigeons' shoulders, tongues, and wedding nights. I love the pigeon's place in history, their obsession with living in the letters of our signs. I love their minds, or what I've come to believe is their theology. Who knows? Let the pigeons speak. Ask the closest pigeon for his number, for her middle name, if they are ready to die, if the sky gets crowded enough to consider war, if their stores are closed on Sundays. I want to be ready for them to be just like us, but more ready for them to be completely different. I don't want to waste any time tracing a pigeon's god to Abraham. I want to get started. Some of us feed pigeons. I love, sometimes, our care. I love, I think, the park bench. I love apples, but I do not love pears. The weather. I love the pigeons, the revolution of wheel to sky. I love the newspaper graying in a different air.
from Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love (Copper Canyon, 2019)
I can see my fire escape from where I sit while I write this. And, on any blessed day that allows me to sit in this chair — my great grandmother’s chair, the rattan split into holes after decades, and I, not knowing where or how to repair it — for a long time, I will probably see at least six — if not ten, if not twenty — pigeons alighting on the rail outside my window. I live in such proximity to pigeons that one day, commuting back home from school, I exited the subway to find I had missed three calls from my girlfriend, who had to be somewhere, and, as such, upon not finding an answer, texted me in all caps: “COME HOME. THERE IS A PIGEON HERE. I HAVE TO LEAVE. I DO NOT KNOW WHAT TO DO. I OPENED ALL THE WINDOWS. GOOD LUCK.” She called my friend Nick, who accepted the cause with great courage, and he met me outside my apartment. We entered with one face mask over our each of our mouths and another sort of over our eyes, and then we did a vague kind of dance around the small space, trepidatious and absolutely terrified, only to find that the pigeon had exited out of one of the very open windows, voiding itself over the floor a few times on its way out.
As such, I love this poem by Keith S. Wilson. I love it, in particular, for its opening sentence:
I love how you never find their bodies, how they never rest their eyes.
For a long time I have been obsessed with dead pigeons. Perhaps that sounds like an odd obsession, but when you consider the fact that the average New Yorker sees probably, what, a hundred (if not more) pigeons per day, and hardly ever a single dead pigeon, maybe you are taken to wonder where the dead pigeons are. Do they go somewhere — all of them, as a collective — to die? Are there special pigeons assigned with the task of burying the bodies of their fellow pigeon dead? Where are they? Do they die? Are they mourned, if they do die? Is there ritual? Mourning? Do pigeons have a language of grief?
And so I love today’s poem not just because it begins with an obsession of mine, but also because of the way it turns that wonder into love, and then turns that love into want:
I love that pigeons live in the city, that underestimation never stopped a pigeon from unlatching itself or being old. I want them all unspooling in the air, and bridges that are half sigh and half pigeon. I want to harbor their coo and utilize it for energy. I want to learn to use them the way they want to be used. I want to pigeontail into a quiet night, to let their oddness sit in our hands.
Embedded in these sentences and in this poem as a whole is a way of situating the speaker as someone mere, if I can use mere as a noun. Yes, the speaker wants, but that want seems to place the speaker as beholden to the very selfhood of pigeons. The pigeon knows they live in a world that “is here with them in hate,” and, as such, the speaker asks us to “consider the pigeon's brown and green and everything, the brandishing of his nakedness to the sun.” There is something beautiful about this. This willingness to look at what has been made invisible by the world (or, if not invisible, visible in a way that is smeared with unworthiness) and ask what is of value here.
In her book In Memory of Memory, translated by Sasha Dugdale, Maria Stepanova summarizes the purpose of poetry, brought to the table by the Russian poet Gregory Dashevsky, as something that “bring[s] the invisible to the point of visibility.” And perhaps that is echoed by Wilson when he writes:
You can never know a language until you quiet your own.
Today’s poem exhibits a willingness to journey headlong into wonder, which is another way of journeying headlong into the invisible. Yes, you use your own language to render the invisible into some semblance of visibility, but wonder itself introduces a language that requires you to quiet your own dominant way of being. To wonder is to give yourself over to submission, to think about what might be, rather than what you know. It’s why I never stop thinking of a line by my friend George Kovalenko:
Remember when we used to wonder rather than know?
And the thing is, on the other side of wonder is more knowledge, and it is the kind of knowledge that might lead us collectively into humility. In her book Stories I Forgot to Tell You, Dorothy Gallagher devotes an entire chapter to two pigeons who landed on her terrace. In it, she has a paragraph where she writes:
Do you know that pigeons rate near the top of the bird intelligence scale? Maybe ravens and parrots are smarter, but pigeons recognize individual human faces and voices; they recognize themselves in a mirror; they can be trained to carry messages. During World War Two, a pigeon sent out by a farmer in the Netherlands reached British lines with a message taped to its leg: “Help our Jews.” Even if you blindfold pigeons and transport them thousands of miles away from their homes, by some still-mysterious method they find their way back.
I don’t want the point of such a paragraph to be something like: wow, pigeons are so smart; therefore, we should view them with a greater degree of kindness. Rather, the point to glean from such an inundation of wonderful facts is perhaps to say something like: see what value the world unveils for you when you believe it has value in ways you can’t immediately discern, when you remove yourself from the center and live with some degree of humility? And you notice that humility in today’s poem. You notice it when Wilson writes:
Who knows? Let the pigeons speak. Ask the closest pigeon for his number, for her middle name, if they are ready to die, if the sky gets crowded enough to consider war, if their stores are closed on Sundays. I want to be ready for them to be just like us, but more ready for them to be completely different.
The question who knows is a question steeped in humility. And what I love about this moment of today’s poem is the way in which it — and the poem as a whole — straddles the line between the excitement of unknowing that leads to ownership and the excitement of unknowing that leads to surrender. Throughout the poem, the constant repetition of want serves as a reminder that sometimes, our collective wonder quickly moves away from innocence and into ownership. We don’t know something, and, as such, we filter our unknowing through what we do know (and, often, what we own). What follows is a lack of imagination, or humility, or givingness, or compassion. We want what we know from what we do not know. Isn’t this a kind of ownership? Dominion? And yet, there can also be a joy that comes from unknowing. It’s why I love the lines above. They enact a moment when the poem turns the constant want of it away from the possibility of ownership and into the very idea of surrender. Instead of following the repetition of want back into the known world, the poem turns toward the possibility of a world that could be completely different.
And isn’t that part of the joy of wonder, of unknowing? The way in which positioning yourself in an active state of wonder in relation to the world allows for the world to seem, so often, wholly and completely different? To live in wonder is to live in an act of constant imagination, where what is is transformed, perpetually, into what might or what could. And then, perhaps, you find yourself looking back at what is and seeing love there when you didn’t see it before:
Some of us feed pigeons. I love, sometimes, our care.
In an interview with Jericho Brown, Keith S. Wilson says:
I think when folks push back at sentimentality, they think they’re recoiling from falseness. But I’m sad. All the time. The advantage of that is I am not afraid that my melancholy is inauthentic…I am in that tradition of trying to find beauty and love and hope in a world, imperialistic and capitalistic, that demands of us everything but that.
Such a statement is a beautiful testament of what can happen when a poem, like today’s, lives in all its authentic fullness — when it wants and loves and wonders and cares. That is the exercise of today’s poem — the exercise of living within wonder and looking again at what you might’ve looked at before. It’s an exercise against ideology, against dominance. A poem can do this, you know. A poem can wonder its way toward value. A poem can enact joy and childishness and excitement and permission all at once. I thought of this while reading Mark Fisher’s Postcapitalist Desire. In it, he writes:
Ideology turns what is always a process of becoming — which is open-ended and therefore changeable — into something that is fixed and permanent. That’s what reification is. And, of course, that’s crucial. That’s the very purpose of ideology. The very purpose of ideology is to close off the possibility that anything could be different.
Wonder, curiosity, humility — I feel these things acting in opposition to ideology at all times. And maybe it sounds decidedly uncritical to say that one response to the constricting and oftentimes violent consequences of ideological thinking is to consider allowing wonder to play a more frequent role in our lives. But I think it’s true. I often tell people that the hardest part about being a high school teacher is not working with students, but rather working with adults. It’s not because adults are terrible. It’s because the work of education — so often thankless, fast-paced, responsive, filled with various forms of failure — is difficult and stressful. And it’s because, in times of stress and uncertainty, we often reify the processes we feel most certain about. I do this all the time. I create my own individual ideologies to help me get through what is hard. And that probably makes me hard to work with. It’s so hard, but if there is a future world worth imagining, I believe it will come only when we do the difficult work of living in active resistance to the cynical stubbornness that allows for ideology to form at the expense of imagination.
Today’s poem is an example of what this kind of active imagination might look like, and what it might lead to. Most things, turned in the right kind of light, can be examples of love and care. And I love when a poem (like today’s) is an example of a poet being both the light and the turning.
I hope you spend time with whatever version of a pigeon exists in your life today. Whatever thing has long since been written off or degraded by a world that has refused to attempt to turn back toward it with wonder or humility or grace. I hope you spend time with what someone once told you has no value. Maybe it’s something you wrote awhile ago that someone told you wasn’t worth revisiting. Maybe it’s that thing you gave up, put down. That painting. That puzzle. That blanket you were knitting for your friend. Maybe it’s a pigeon. Or so many of them, landing on your fire escape. And I hope that spending time — in whatever way you do, with whatever it is you do — reminds you of care. Of what could or might be. And yes, of what is. But maybe that is is different. Maybe you see love where you didn’t see it before. Maybe you don’t see anything. Maybe it feels good to just wonder for awhile. Forget that pigeons are also doves. Did you know that doves are also pigeons? Isn’t that beautiful?