blackbird online journal Spring 2008  Vol. 7  No. 1


audio version


Lynda Hull's "Ornithology"
     from “A Tribute to the Poetry of Lynda Hull”
     AWP Conference Panel, January 31, 2008

Introductory Remarks

I want to thank David for pulling this panel together; these have been extraordinarily moving statements. I want to acknowledge that some members of Lynda’s family are here today: her parents, Gene and Christine Hull, and her sister—thank you for doing this. And I want to thank Graywolf for bringing an essential text back into the light of print and available for new generations of readers.

I’m going to read Lynda’s poem “Ornithology.” And I’ll give you just a little bit of orientation for the poem. The speaker begins in Chicago; she’s out for a walk and an observation triggers the memory of a night in Kansas City, years before, when she and a friend went looking for Charlie Parker’s grave. And it might be helpful to know that the poem ends with a quotation from Parker himself, and along the way we are contemplating some ailanthus trees—those are those tough, urban trees with feathery foliage and red seed pods that seem to—that the more dreadful the conditions in which they are growing, the better they look. Here’s the poem:


Gone to seed, ailanthus, the poverty
   tree. Take a phrase, then
fracture it, the pods’ gaudy nectarine shades
        ripening to parrots taking flight, all crest
and tail feathers.
                            A musical idea.
   scarlet and violet,
                                tangerine as a song
the hue of sunset where my street becomes water

and down shore this phantom city skyline’s
   mere hazy silhouette. The alto’s
liquid geometry weaves a way of thinking,
        a way of breaking
                     through time
                                          so the girl
   on the corner
                         has the bones of my face,
the old photos, beneath the Kansas City hat,

black fedora lifting hair off my neck
   cooling the sweat of a night-long tidal
pull from bar to bar the night we went
        to find Bird's grave. Eric’s chartreuse
perfume. That
                       poured-on dress
                                                   I lived days
   and nights inside,
                                made love
and slept in, a mesh and slur of zipper

down the back. Women smoked the boulevards
   with gardenias after-hours, asphalt shower-
slick, ozone charging air with sixteenth
        notes, that endless convertible ride to find
the grave
                whose sleep and melody
                                                        wept neglect
   enough to torch us
                                  for a while
through snare-sweep of broom on pavement,

the rumpled musk of lover’s sheets, charred
   cornices topping crosstown gutted buildings.
Torches us still—cat screech, matte blue steel
        of pistol stroked across the victim’s cheek
where fleet shoes
                              jazz this dark
                                                    and peeling

   block, that one.
                             Vine Street, Olive.
We had the music, but not the pyrotechnics—

rhinestone straps lashing my shoes, heels sinking
   through earth and Eric in casual drag,
mocha cheekbones rouged, that flawless
        plummy mouth. A style for moving,
heel tap and
                     lighter flick, 
                                        lion moan
   of buses pulling away
                                      through the static
brilliant fizz of taffeta on nyloned thighs.

Light mist, etherous, rinsed our faces
   and what happens when
you touch a finger to the cold stone
        that jazz and death played
down to?
                               Take it all
   and break forever—
                                   a man
with gleaming sax, an open sill in summertime,

and the fire-escape’s iron zigzag tumbles
   crazy notes to a girl cooling her knees,
wearing one of those dresses no one wears
        anymore, darts and spaghetti straps, glitzy
fabrics foaming
                         an iron bedstead.
                                                      The horn’s
   alarm, then fluid brass chromatics.
ailanthus, the courtyard’s poverty tree is spike
and wing, slate-blue
                                 mourning dove,
                                                           sudden cardinal flame.

If you don’t live it, it won't come out your horn.

from Collected Poems, Graywolf Press 2006; reprinted with permission



Lynda Hull’s “Ornithology” centers on a compelling bit of narration; it just seems intrinsically interesting, a drunken all-night quest with a black drag queen to find the grave of a great jazz musician (and notable heroin addict). But I want to focus here on the ways this story is framed, the extraordinary apparatus of commentary, image and meditation that surrounds the tale. I’d argue that this scaffolding, in fact, is the poem; that is, the narration’s only here to provide a kind of hook, a focal moment which makes the poem’s larger gestures apprehensible.

The poem begins with an evocation of an ailanthus, a tough urban tree with feathery foliage and reddish seed pods that seems to thrive in the worst of conditions. The tree-ripe seedpods suggest parrots, and thus suggest the Charlie Parker album that lends the poem its title. There’s no action in that opening sentence:

Gone to seed, ailanthus, the poverty tree.

It simply places the tree before us, in a phrase with its usual syntactical order inverted, and then follows it immediately with a bit of reflexive commentary:

Take a phrase, then fracture it . . .

Thus the pattern of the whole poem’s been predicted; the text will present us with image and narration, but it will also tell us how to read what we’re given, providing a self-conscious commentary throughout.

“Take a phrase, then fracture it” is a good description of a working principle of jazz, and of the poem’s own syntax and lineation—it’s artfully staggered on the page, introducing air and hesitation. But it’s also a good description of reverie, the associative mode of thinking that provides the poem with its structure. The speaker’s thinking about Parker’s music while contemplating that flaming tree, and tells us

                                       The alto’s
liquid geometry weaves a way of thinking,
        a way of breaking
                     through time

Thus we can move effortlessly into memory, and the poem’s offered us another description of its own method in that beautiful phrase, liquid geometry, an oxymoronic term that describes precisely the way that consciousness is both fluid and orderly.

The reconstruction of experience in memory lends it a kind of a heightened sheen, an atmospheric lighting borrowed from film noir, the risky old days gone beautiful through this lens. You can hear this quality in

                          Women smoked the boulevards
   with gardenias after-hours, asphalt shower-

or this bit of Hollywood:

                                              matte blue steel
        of pistol stroked across the victim’s cheek
where fleet shoes
                              jazz this dark
                                                    and peeling


As much as Hull loves the sensuous glamour of those details, they cannot ward off a chill at the memory’s core:

the grave
                whose sleep and melody
                                                        wept neglect

Nor can they erase the fact that the speaker’s own all-too-human life cannot quite match the effortless effects that the restorative agents of memory and artifice would like to achieve:

We had the music, but not the pyrotechnics—

rhinestone straps lashing my shoes, heels sinking
   through earth

The question the poem has been circling becomes overt when the poet asks what can be made of the sad tombstone of an artist destroyed, and what can be made of this memory itself:

          what happens when
you touch a finger to the cold stone
        that jazz and death played
down to?

The question is urgent because it is not academic; it is as much a personal quest as it is a consideration of Charlie Parker’s fate. And it has a very particular answer: “Phrases,” the poem’s only one-word sentence, a gesture which points to how essential and plain an answer it is. What we have, in light of erasure and ruin, all that jazz and death play down to, is the music we can make. That music, in Hull’s poem, carries us back through the past, in its beauty and brokenness, back to the ailanthus, with its brilliant colors arising out of deprivation, and finally to the poem’s final assertion of an esthetic credo, quoted from Parker himself. What ruins us, what carries us away, the wreckage around us—well, it can be lived out, can be lived into, and if we can do nothing else with it we can make music. This is another version of an emphatic statement of belief which appears elsewhere in Lynda’s work: “Better this immersion than to live untouched.”

These two statements—“If you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn” and “Better this immersion than to live untouched”—are the guiding principles of a restless intelligence determined not only to give form to the troubling, roiling stuff of memory and of struggle, but to engage us in that form itself and its making, to understand how any artist, poet or horn player, makes out of love and trouble a pattern which, in the hands of masterful artists like Lynda Hull or Charlie Parker, outlives its maker, and transcends the circumstances of its making.  

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