Birds

and other pathetic phalluses

Birds

“I had a dream I died at this meal once, counting out chicken wings.” 

What a way to go, dad! One of those recurring dreams, deja vu, intuitions, prophecies.

In Merleau Ponty’s retelling of Freud’s retelling of da Vinci’s infant memory, he quotes da Vinci: 

“I seem to have been destined to be especially concerned with the vulture, for one of the first things I remember about my childhood is how a vulture came to me when I was still in the cradle, forced open my lips with its tail, and struck me several times between the lips with it.” 

The feathers stuck for a number of days against the window before the wind took them away. Like two eyelashes stuck to a cheek, awaiting a finger. My dad raked the bird’s body off the roof to bury it in a small hole beneath the magnolia tree. Our footprints in straight lines melted holes in the snow, he hummed Taps in the pitch of a kazoo. Later, reminding me, if only I closed my blinds, the birds wouldn’t die flying. 

He watches the birds from the window. Today: “Should I join the national ornithology club?” Tomorrow: “I joined the national ornithology club.” There is one less Junko since the incident, but still four hummingbirds, a handful of chickadees, starlings and some bald eagles in view from his perch in the kitchen. His commitment to the club is to stand outside awhile, once a week, and count the birds. So far he has counted only those same few who eat suet from his feeders and suck sugar water. He wonders if his friend, a Rufus hummingbird, will return this summer to lay eggs in his tree again. Last year, he read Jose Luis Borges’ book of sonnets, which includes compositions about hummingbirds, but didn’t really enjoy it.

Freud thinks da Vinci's memory of the bird’s tail implied a desire for a phallus in the mouth. For Freud, it seems, anything substantial is phallic and masculine, and anything vacuous is feminine. The realm of the unconscious can be deeply troubling for those of us who accept life as it is; it implies that what is visible might not be all there is, that our self-hood is made up of more than our known memories. The symbolic register is of great concern to Merleau Ponty who believes that, not only is God dead, but there is no life beyond the life we experience and perceive on the level of consciousness. Our being is the process of existence, and nothing more. History is our memory. Then what of the vulture’s tail in da Vinci’s mouth if we do not count on the symbolic register? Maybe just a childhood dream.


Iman Raad, Reverse Painting on Glass, 2018


New York, New York
David Berman

A second New York is being built
a little west of the old one.
Why another, no one asks,
just build it, and they do.

The city is still closed off
to all but the work crews
who claim it’s a perfect mirror image.

Truthfully, each man works on the replica
of the apartment building he lives in,
adding new touches,
like cologne dispensers, rock gardens,
and doorknobs marked for the grand hotels.

Improvements here and there, done secretly
and off the books. None of the supervisors
notice or mind. Everyone’s in a wonderful mood,
joking, taking walks through the side streets
that the single reporter allowed inside has described as

“unleavened with reminders of the old city’s complicated past,
but giving off some blue perfume from the early years of earth.”


The men grow to love the peaceful town.
It becomes more difficult to return home at night,

which sets the wives to worrying.
The yellow soups are cold, the sunsets quick.

The men take long breaks on the fire escapes,
waving across the quiet spaces to other workers
meditating on their perches.

Until one day…

The sky fills with charred clouds.
Toolbelts rattle in the rising wind.

Something is wrong.

A foreman stands in the avenue
pointing binoculars at a massive gray mark
moving towards us in the eastern sky.

Several voices, What, What is it?

Pigeons, he yells through the wind.


Eli Burley, Pecking Party, 2015


Rings of Saturday

In the sun by the coy pond drinking a stolen coffee. Every day around noon, if not eleven, the caretaker of the house steps out for some sun or retreats into the basement. I run upstairs to boil the kettle, deftly spoon crumbs of instant coffee into a mug, pour the water and run. There’s a little thief inside me. Since I was a child, I’ve heard its voice. I killed animals and said means things and stole candy and lego and lipgloss. It wasn’t a voice of malice, but when I think back on it, one of testing the consequences of action. I wanted to witness what impact I had, wanted to test how well the rules were enforced. I think, even as a child, I saw the strings of expectation, thought, maybe there’s a way out. 

At the dinner table my dad mentions to me he is glad my brother has gone back to school, because being around him is stressful.

Why is that, I said.

Well he struggles.

I thought about this for awhile, wondering why it doesn’t stress him out to be around me, me who struggles as much as anyone.

You’ve always been more resilient than your brother.

I said, perhaps he’s suffered more than me.

Or at least, I thought, he’s suffered in different ways, or I’ve suffered more quietly.

The truth is that it wasn’t chicken wings he was counting in the dream, but spot prawns on a plate of steak.



Mary Oliver, Wild Geese, 2004


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