Barred Owl. Photograph by Alan Nyeri
by John Canaday
by Jeredith Merrin,
Grayson Books, 39 pp.
Jeredith Merrin’s Owling, winner of the 2016 Grayson Chapbook contest, consists of 19 poems, each named after one of 18 species of owls from around the world. (The barn owl is addressed twice.) The poems explore different forms, modes, and moods, but there is no Ginsberg’s ’Owl among Merrin’s menagerie. Instead, the poems proceed in a mannerly fashion to explore two primary concerns, announced in the first poem (“The Pharaoh Eagle Owl”): “Look how it looks as it’s looking” and “What riddle is it posing?”
Merrin approaches her owls as riddles, reading them as though they were emblems of individual (though not necessarily her own) wants, woes, losses. As in “The Maned Owl,” little may be known about a given creature, but little is needed, for even littleness itself serves as a metaphor:
As is the case with
the wide coral reefs,
or with each creature’s
or with almost anyone’s
mother or father,
too little is known about them.
And then they’re gone.
Nor is she the only one reading these birds for all they’re worth. “The Stygian Owl,” we are told, has
Long, erect ear tufts, sooty
plumage, eyes glowing
red in the dark: enough
so that in Brazil
it’s called “devil’s owl;”
in the Caribbean,
linked to witchcraft,
Merrin’s poems seem to welcome others’ acts of haruspication and the eccentric semiotic riches that spill from them as evidence that her own efforts at anthropocentric interpretation are not whimsical but belong to a storied tradition.
Yet as this passage suggests, Merrin also delights in tidier scientific dissections. So her readings of what these owls mean are always balanced by descriptions of how they “look” and why. Each poem shares a wealth of ornithological facts (when they are known), as in these further lines from “The Stygian Owl”:
The bird’s eye is backed
by the tapetum lucidum
or “bright tapestry,”
an iridescent tissue
that reflects light toward
the retina—the resulting
red gleam a common
feature of night hunters.
Merrin’s descriptions are precise and detailed, the result of long study, and we soon realize that these owls live in the pages of textbooks and the internet rather than in fields and woodlands. Indeed, the speaker seems never to venture out into nature but instead explores a virtual world in which each owl flits about, half textbook illustration, half symbol. As a result, even their “real” physical features and habits remain textual, more accessible to the mind than the senses. But who are we to complain if the speaker turns to the research of others rather than traveling to “Gambon, Cameroon, / Liberia, the Congo” (“The Maned Owl”)? We do the same as we read these poems.
In this regard, reader and speaker find themselves on equal footing, in ways that ultimately matter. Though Merrin has ostensibly done the “legwork,” gathering the metonymic fragments and arranging them in meaningful ways, the reader of these poems retraces, in miniature, Merrin’s journey: encountering these birds as textual artifacts, presented most often with a minimum of artifice. And if these discursive passages sometimes flatten into a chopped up textbook prose (or actual prose, as follows the announcement, “Googling, I found:” in “Blakiston’s Fish Owl”), Merrin eggs us beyond mere textbook facts, always offering a fillip, in the form of her own last exegetic words—in the case of the Stygian Owl, for instance:
There is no Devil.
The book is full of such glad tidings in tidy packages, a function of the dominant method of these poems. Each builds a metaphoric superstructure on a metonymic foundation, and so the owls exist as textual fragments out of which Merrin constructs meaningful equations as takeaways:
Whether or not you see the marks, all love is maculate. (“The Snowy Owl”)
. . . you might well mistake it for a heart in shock. (“The Barn Owl”)
The darling you fell for’s a raptor. (“The Elf Owl”)
The fragments that serve as starting points, however—the bits and pieces of what we know about these owls—turn out to be more difficult to transcend than Merrin’s deft metaphorical unriddlings might suggest. In some respects, indeed, they are sum and substance of these poems. Significantly, nine of the nineteen poems in this volume end with sentence fragments, e.g.:
Out of sorts. In heaven. In a quandary. Out of time. (“The Burrowing Owl”)
Feline ease—sturdy, cobby—with your life. (“The Guatemalan Pygmy Owl”)
O my grand, improbable passions. O yours. (“The Flammulated Owl”)
The book ends, in fact, on such a fragment:
Smoking a Gauloise in the rain. (“The Barred Owl”)
What are we to make of this lack of completion? That is, I think, the most tenacious question these poems pose. One might offer ready-made answers from the stock of post-modern theory: that all knowledge is fragmentary; that the chain of signifiers is never complete; that the best language can do is move us incrementally forward by leaning into its traces. Yes, yes. But Merrin’s poems seem to me most interesting not for what they say about owls, nor what one might say about their saying, but as invitations to pause and look at a kind and thoughtful poet looking at what it might mean to look at how we look at a few among all the feathered hosts.
About the Author:
John Canaday’s poems have appeared in Poetry, The New Republic, Raritan, The Hudson Review, Slate, The Paris Review, and The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, among other journals and anthologies. The Invisible World, a book of poems set in the Middle East and New England, won the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. He is also the author of a critical study, The Nuclear Muse: Literature, Physics, and the First Atomic Bombs.