Brent Cunningham
Ugly Duckling Presse ($10)

by Amanda Nadelberg

As magical and lovely on the inside as its wonderful 1970's kitchen-green cover suggests, Brent Cunningham's Bird & Forest transforms itself from declarative orations to stunningly self-conscious meditations and then turns again, the poems becoming portraits of people and animals. All of this happens seamlessly, on account of a careful and consistent kind of language that Cunningham employs.

The first section, "The Orations of Trillius Patronius," puts the reader in a rare position. Typically, such speeches would be heard and not seen; Cunningham challenges this tradition and in doing so creates a fine intimacy between the reader and the text. These orations are even more significant for introducing a ritual that Cunningham practices throughout the book: the act of asking questions and providing multiple answers without sounding disingenuous. If anything, there seems no better way to engage the reader, the crowd, than to ask questions—this is not a heavy monologue, but rather a gorgeous conversation.

Having set up his dialogic strategy, Cunningham continues to leave open the door for possibility in these poems. "Preface to the Bird & Forest" is a piece that seems to explain how the central image of the book came about. Three subsequent "descriptions," however, present three different versions of a truth, and each of these three pieces conclude with the statement, "And this was how I first conceived the Bird & Forest." While a variety of explanations could appear deceptive, here it is more the case that this acknowledgment of multiple truths mirrors the truth of perception, and also points to a kind of generosity that Cunningham exhibits throughout: if one of the explanations doesn't suit you, you have others from which to choose. Similarly, the ongoing presentation of questions—"Were the leaves of this forests deciduous? Was it winter? Was it night?"—illustrates Cunningham's fine modesty as a writer while inviting us to participate in his imaginings.

Any cynic who believes that prose poetry lacks music hasn't read this book, for Cunningham's sentences are impeccably timed and punctuation never sounded so good. On first glance, nothing could seem less metrical than a big block of text, as with "Part 2: The Exact, Exact Bird." But even there, the poet makes good sounds with beautiful syllables:

Now listen, listen....Give me your finger; put it in that glass. Can you hear that rasping? I'm a cracked little beak, crushed in my nasals. You think you saw something? But what was it? It lingers and bores you, this nothing.... Have you ever been to Sunnydale? They have nothing in Sunnydale. They think white people have soap up their assholes.

This importance of sound in this book ties back to Cunningham's inclusion of the orations and multitude of questions, two aspects so dependent on the ear.

Bird & Forest continues to bend the rules of prose and sound in poetry, while keeping the reader gladly engaged in this generous conversation. It's really not so complicated: "My friends, I have come today, in my little bird-car, to say hello to these depths of the heart." Such a simple, delightful thing as this should be repeated often. In the last poem, "The Troubling Volume," Cunningham writes, "They will say / he has gone off / but where we cannot say." During subsequent travels through the book the reader finds a possible answer in "Principle of the Bird": "When the creature can't contain anymore, it flies off, into the trees, as a pursuant, to start again its questions."

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006