Fragments: From the Lost Book of the Bird Spirit
by Karla Van Vliet
Folded World, 2018.
Karla Van Vliet’s lyrical imagination has unearthed for us a tender relic, Fragments: From the Lost Book of the Bird Spirit, her third collection. Fragments is posited as salvaged pieces of an ancient spiritual text, written in an early defunct language (as suggested by the cuneiform-like marks on the book’s cover), ardent lines that are the survivors of extensive effacement and erasure. The text is broken into eight internal “books”—The Book of Tribulation, of Bewilderment, of Hazards…. Within each are remnants of sections, numbered like the books and passages of the Bible, the Quran, or the Dhammapada.
Although Van Vliet’s poetic fragments are highly evocative of place, they locate readers in a world of consciousness wherein inanimate objects, the human tongue and speech, and the animated energy of birds, arise from the same metaphysical source that speaks the physical world and its creatures into existence.
“I ground stone to dust and spread it over my tongue, my words sprang wings and flew away.”
When the speaker of these lines addresses the Bird Spirit, as is often the case, it is a voice essentially speaking to itself. The tone of voice shifts from elegiac to urgent to despairing to prayerful to reconciled. What has been lost is ardently, insistently sought; there is poignant longing for reunion, also willingness to endure and courage to yield to spirit as a reliable touchstone and guide.
“I am listening for the direction of your next call. My whole body devout…”
“Let me die…I am pitched toward darkness, let out like a slapping flag…”
“…source of devotion, sheer abandoned desire, the unhindered. Is this not my delight?”
Some lines are punctuated, others not. Some fragments are mere short phrases, preceded and followed by ellipses. Some segments and sections of the book end mid-thought, as in segment 1:18-20 of the Book of Orientation.
the blue like held breath, waiting. Then clear,
the bunting’s song over the brae.
My own heartbeat
Throughout this chapbook-length work, solitude is palpable. Aside from the speaker, there are no other humans and only two signs of human constructs appear in the book; one in the brief mention of a house and one in a river described as a “glass of sky.” Mostly, we are in the peace and beauty of pure wild landscapes of weather, color, water, sky, and breath, in confluence with each other, engaging the speaker’s awakened emotions. Animistic, Christian, and Oriental spiritual features harmonize in the speaker’s reclusive pursuit in wild spaces and longing for ascension amidst continuous metamorphosis and the grace of birds.
A species of bird figures in each of the numbered segments and, whether it’s a goose, heron, crow, oriole, kingfisher, swallow, hummingbird, or buzzard, each is in polymorphic and interpenetrating relationship with all the elements, and with the solitary speaker’s feelings and heightened capacities for verbal expression.
In fact, words themselves are depicted as living beings, embodied, visceral, calling, breathing, warm-blooded, throaty, instinctual—
all beat and lead and bank, their fervent bodies
spelling the air.
In Fragments, spirit’s utterly essential and elemental communion with all of creation is spoken, written into existence continuously, word became flesh, flesh as word—while the wingèd words of the poet are waited for, sometimes hunted or caged:
“I hung a bamboo cage in my window and left those flapping urgencies to sing all night. I bled a vein of cruelty…”
At times words are in flight, at others buried, needing to be located, dug up, revived, and then caught.
“I dug another body out and this time caught my words, little clamoring lungs, with a butterfly-net.”
In this sense, Fragments is Van Vliet’s ars poetica. The red cardinal that appears in the Book of Orientation is “…like a prayer against all that threatens to harden tenderness.”
As a visual artist (the cover art is a detail from one of her works and she is also skilled in Chinese brush painting), a poet, essayist, and professional dream worker, Van Vliet is continuously engaged in divining images from liminal states and dreams, images that, without assiduous attention, quickly sink back into the unconscious, or fly away, lost from view. There is a fragility and vulnerability to the enterprise. Devotion to preserving and protecting this tenderness is sober and challenging work that requires courage and willingness to stay open. Therefore, sometimes it hurts. In The Book of Suffering, the speaker hits bottom, wishes for death, and dies; the body is seen from a distance, carrion birds devouring it:
“…five or is it six turkey buzzards glide circles in their tottering flight spelling a quietus to flesh…my bones turn white under the sun.”
Here we understand that the speaker participates in an indestructible metamorphosis, incarnate, then not, then incarnate again, same voice, same consciousness, same place of birds, same Earth. This all-pervasive creative and destructive spirit is also manifested in the weather. In the first fragment of the Book of Salvation the speaker says:
“…I became the rain. I became the rain. This too is the loon’s call…”
By insistently collapsing and subverting the divisions between animate beings and the elements, between reality and dream, life and death; the ubiquitous spirit is apprehended and experienced through the poetry. The bird spirit is understood to be but one transient form of a singular spirit, and so The Lost Book of the Bird Spirit is also the lost book of the human spirit— and, if we dare, the lost book of the weather!
As a reader, you might find yourself asking, what, then, has been lost? Something the depth psychologist Ira Progoff once wrote came to my mind. He said that after WWII, when contemplating the Nazi book burnings, he wondered what would happen to civilization if all the recorded wisdom of humanity was destroyed. His thought was that humanity would “simply draw new spiritual scriptures from the same great source…how vast and self-replenishing are the resources of the human spirit…burn the sacred books but they could not destroy the abiding depths out of which those scriptures had emerged.”
If Progoff was correct, the ellipses and white spaces that figure throughout Van Vliet’s book may not be mere placeholders for tragically missing text, but indicators where, if we are alert and attentive, listening inwardly for expression from our own depths, we will have all we need to fill in the blanks.