Birds and the Representation of Representation

What is it about birds?

Thursday, October 21, 2021 · 4 min read

Toni Morrison, Nobel Lecture

Speculation on what (other than its own frail body) that bird-in-the-hand might signify has always been attractive to me, but especially so now thinking, as I have been, about the work I do that has brought me to this company. (full)

Richard Siken, “The Language of the Birds”

And just because you want to paint a bird, do actually paint a bird, it doesn’t mean you’ve accomplished anything. (full)

Cross-examination in Brancusi v. United States

Waite: What do you call this?
Steichen: I use the same term the sculptor did, oiseau, a bird.
Waite: What makes you call it a bird, does it look like a bird to you?
Steichen: It does not look like a bird but I feel that it is a bird, it is characterized by the artist as a bird.
Waite: Simply because he called it a bird does that make it a bird to you?
Steichen: Yes, your honor.
Waite: If you would see it on the street you never would think of calling it a bird, would you?
[Steichen: Silence]
Young: If you saw it in the forest you would not take a shot at it?
Steichen: No, your honor. (more)

Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

But who knows what Fabritius intended? There’s not enough of his work left to even make a guess. The bird looks out at us. It’s not idealized or humanized. It’s very much a bird.

Adam Savage, “My obsession with objects and the stories they tell”

And then there is this fourth level, which is a whole new object in the world: the prop made for the movie, the representative of the thing, becomes, in its own right, a whole other thing, a whole new object of desire. . . . There are several people who own originals, and I have been attempting to contact them and reach them, hoping that they will let me spend a few minutes in the presence of one of the real birds, maybe to take a picture, or even to pull out the hand-held laser scanner that I happen to own that fits inside a cereal box, and could maybe, without even touching their bird, I swear, get a perfect 3D scan. And I’m even willing to sign pages saying that I’ll never let anyone else have it, except for me in my office, I promise. I’ll give them one if they want it. And then, maybe, then I’ll achieve the end of this exercise. But really, if we’re all going to be honest with ourselves, I have to admit that achieving the end of the exercise was never the point of the exercise to begin with, was it? (full)

Michael Shewmaker, “The Curlew”

Plate 357 (Numenius Borealis) is the only instance in which the subject appears dead in the work of John James Audubon.

He waits alone, sketching angels from the shade—a kind of heavenly bird, he reasons with himself—although their wings are broke, faces scarred, each fragile mouth feigning the same sad smile as the one before it. Offered triple his price to paint a likeness of the pastor’s daughter—buried for more than a week—he reluctantly agreed—times being what they are.
. . . . .
And yet he studies it—from behind the dunes—studies its several postures, grounded and in sudden flight—and not content to praise it from a distance, to sacrifice detail, unpacks his brushes and arranges them before raising his rifle and taking aim.

Richard Hunt’s quest for notation for birdsong

(Added April 18, 2023)

Zizzy, uncanny, pebble-tapping, lusty, pule. Ventriloquial, tantara, feminine, crepitate. Tintinnabulation, sough, devil’s tattoo. Sparrowy.

(See the article for more…)

Children imitating cormorants

(Added June 2023)

By Kobayashi Issa; mentioned by a professor on a walk by the Charles River.

Children imitating cormorants
are even more wonderful
than cormorants.

Fake birds in Disneyland

(Added June 2023)

From Philip K. Dick’s speech, “How to build a universe.”

In my writing I got so interested in fakes that I finally came up with the concept of fake fakes. For example, in Disneyland there are fake birds worked by electric motors which emit caws and shrieks as you pass by them. Suppose some night all of us sneaked into the park with real birds and substituted them for the artificial ones. Imagine the horror the Disneyland officials would feel when they discovered the cruel hoax. Real birds! And perhaps someday even real hippos and lions. Consternation.

A representation of an idea

(Added June 2023)

From Eric Kraft’s Where do we stop?

The idea that seemed so bright when it was leaping and darting and fluttering through my mind looked dull and dead when I’d caught it and pinned it to my paper … It wasn’t an idea now, but the representation of an idea. It didn’t fly, didn’t flutter by, didn’t catch the eye as I thought it would. (154)

Symbolic of my entire existence

(Added June 2023)

From CAKE’s Mr. Mastodon Farm

Now due to a construct in my mind
That makes their falling and their flight
Symbolic of my entire existence
It becomes important for me
To get up and see
Their last-second curves toward flight

It’s almost as if my life would fall
Unless I see their ascent.

See also: the poem “Because You Asked about the Line Between Prose and Poetry“ by Howard Nemerov.

Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle
That while you watched turned to pieces of snow
Riding a gradient invisible
From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.

There came a moment that you couldn’t tell.
And then they clearly flew instead of fell.

Why illustrate?

From an interview with illustrator David Sibley.

An illustration provides so much more than a photograph. In an illustration, I can create a typical bird, an average bird of a species in the exact pose that I want, and create an image of a similar species in exactly the same pose so that all the differences are apparent… Your drawing becomes a record of your understanding of that bird in that moment.

Unseeable birds

(See Edgerton’s photograph of Mrs. May Rogers Webster with her hummingbirds.)

My Crow

A poem by Raymond Carver

A crow flew into the tree outside my window.
It was not Ted Hughes’s crow, or Galway’s crow.
Or Frost’s, Pasternak’s, or Lorca’s crow.
Or one of Homer’s crows, stuffed with gore,
after the battle. This was just a crow.
That never fit in anywhere in its life,
or did anything worth mentioning.
It sat there on the branch for a few minutes.
Then picked up and flew beautifully
out of my life.

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