Birds of unknown origin; black and white birds amid lightning strikes; birds as artificial as jewelry but as close as lovers—these are just some of the birds that make an appearance in the poetry of Tina Chang and Saskia Hamilton. But what could they mean? Chang and Hamilton are both women poets who rely heavily on imagery, especially in their poetry books Of Gods & Strangers (2011) and Corridor (2014), allowing the reader to create her own interpretation while passing through or being presented with the material. Both Chang and Hamilton make the deliberate choice to include birds in their poetry; Chang uses birds to represent extremes and how they relate to each other, and Hamilton uses birds to help tell the story of the cycles of nature.
In Chang’s poem, “The Empress Dowager has One Bird,” the bird is “soldered” (1) to the Dowager’s finger like a wedding ring. Every image in the poem echoes a feeling of tightness: bird and finger melded together, the idea of “nesting” (4), an inward calling “of self to self” (5), and “A birdcage with hinges squeaking / inward” (8-9). Everything is close and contained, as told from the point of view of the bird as the speaker. The bird seems to even take the place of a lover in the Empress Dowager’s life, holding so much meaning and responsibility. Its status allows it to “feast on flecks of gold” (1-2), but how nutritious is that? It is unsustainable and artificial: a “torch lit” (2) that is bound to burn out. The poem itself is short, reflecting the theme of containment—perhaps even imprisonment. The bird is kept by the Dowager; the Dowager is kept by her country, the men in her life, or both. The Dowager sees herself in the bird, as something trapped. The theme of duality is here; they are human and animal, but they are alike, both as artificial beings, suffocating inside themselves. Chang puts on the mask of the Empress Dowager in her book, and here, she puts on the mask of the bird: “The dowager poems, scattered throughout the book, sometimes portray the poet as empress, or create a study in contrasts between two household roles, two nations, two intricate webs of needs” (Fiction Book Review: Of Gods & Strangers). Adding the bird to the mix complicates the idea even further and functions to show the multiple dualities inside Chang, and human beings in general, that push and pull on each other.
Chang, in an interview with BOMB Magazine, reflects about how she viewed birds in the years the spent writing her first book: “When I think back to that time of my bird obsession, I know I was thinking a great deal about confinement and freedom. Love and war are really the same thing. They seem like opposites, but as anyone will tell you, to keep and attain abiding love is a struggle” (Schaer). In Chang’s mind, birds function with dual meanings, an innate contrast, like love and war. But she challenges the reader to see how the extremes relate to each other. Using the vocabulary from Chang’s poetry, the interviewer asks Chang if the Empress Dowager is a “starlet or misfit,” and Chang replies, “She was a grand example of both. What a mess. What a queen.” Birds cannot be just one thing and cannot evoke just one feeling, and Chang uses this to explore the extremities of life and how they might be more closely connected than originally thought.
Chang continues this conversation in her poem “Identity.” It feels like the speaker of this poem, perhaps Chang herself, sees herself in the bird of the poem, instead this time, it is a “bird of unknown origin” (4) that is “black and white, / before catastrophe and after bliss” (11-12). Somewhere in between is the gray area of a lightning strike. She insists on knowing this bird even though it is a “stunning blur” (17) and a “mortal without a face” (18). With these unique images, there is a sense of shadows and more to be discovered. Black and white can represent dark and light—totality and extremes. The speaker is exploring the idea of identity: polarization in oneself. No exact definition, image, or species can be identified, and that is what is occurring inside the speaker’s mind.
Chang’s rhythmic and formulaic choices also support the aforementioned idea of the pushing and pulling of identities, evident in “Identity” as well: “The result is a push-pull, and we are falling, then wrapped, bound in the expected and repeated embrace of a couplet then buffeted into intellectualism found in contemporary indexing. But woven through this diversity of appearances is a personal thread of identity, so that it does not feel like she is trying on dresses so much as showing us the complexity of her owned wardrobe” (MacFee). Especially in “Identity,” the space between each line and the alternating indents manifest this motion. While Chang is trying on different masks, especially that of the Dowager, as she herself said (Poetry Reading), they are all a part of her in some way.
The last poem by Chang to be discussed is “Sex Gospels.” Birds make two appearances here. The first is in section three, with the image of “pigeons [caught] inside the flue” (27), showing the anxious nature of rushed love affairs. One normally sees more than one pigeon, even thousands in one place, so this represents the sheer volume of the restlessness: a tug between indulgence and regret, carelessness and angst.
The second appearance of birds is in section six. Chang writes, “When we were born, there were twin lightning / storms on opposite sides of the earth. / White birds colliding into black birds that high” (48-50). Again, Chang uses the image of black and white birds, including lightning as well. In this poem, there are twin lightning storms and the birds collide when she and her lover are born, showing how love can bring together extremes in oneself and in each other. This challenges the definition of duality altogether: if a duality exists inside of a human as one experience, how can the two sides be separate? Perhaps the more accurate term is multiplicity. In the end, heads and tails both rest on the same coin; however, this does not take away from the struggles of living in a world that does not accept such gray areas. About her life, Chang says:
Anyone who has grown up in a household of dual language, dual identity, or a multi-cultural upbringing has probably always had the feeling of belonging to many different places, and as a result, the self is both multiplied and fractured. There were times in my youth when I felt this multinationalism was a burden or even an embarrassment. When I was a teenager, I wondered why I had to negotiate this intricate emotional terrain. I remember distinctly wanting to feel simpler, less complex, and less messy. (Wendy)
This difficulty translates into relationships, since when two people come together, they inherit each other’s complexities and create a new mess altogether. But that is where the beauty lies—in collision—as the language in Chang’s poetry suggests.
Chang herself comments on this idea and adds another layer. In an interview with The Brooklyn Rail, she says, “The entire book is not about sex or intimacy: it’s about the interplay between truth and g*d, or truth and g*d in relationship to what intimacy is—our relationships to one another. In regard to truth, it becomes eventually a personal interpretation, almost on the same level as prayer. Everyone’s relationship to it is singular, internal and different from another’s” (St.-Lascaux). Now, the dualities of truth and god have been added to the conversation. The poetry is about more than just interpersonal relationships. It is about the essence of truth, and how this relates to god and human opinions and feelings. Truth is a source of conflict that creates friction, because friction can only be made by opposing forces. But in the end, the forces are touching and therefore still connected deeply. Chang experiments with ideas like totality, extremes, what lies between, and how each part relates to each other. Without her black and white birds, she would be unable to fully capture these ideas.
Hamilton’s use of birds in her poetry is just as intriguing. She begins and ends the book with two poems with the same title: “Night-Jar.” In Hamilton’s poetry reading on October 20, 2020, she described night-jars to her audience before reading the poems. She has heard these haunting birds twice but only seen them once; they are not birds of prey, eating only insects, yet they move like hawks and fly at night like owls. They nest on the ground, making them vulnerable, but they are masters of camouflage. They can deter predators with their ventriloquist-like abilities; they have the incredible power to throw their voices, which is all at once beautiful and mysterious, allowing them to survive. Hamilton said that the two poems are like two different sketches or attempts to capture the essence of this bird.
Hamilton does not choose an ordinary bird to focus on, which forces the reader to pay attention to how birds function in her book. The night-jars have captured Hamilton’s attention just like her poetry captivates the reader: “These birds act as a kind of portal into Hamilton’s gray world, which might be inspired by, but is not part of, a countryside that has fallen into ruin, a ‘wood with its innumerable pathways’ to ‘tall grasses, fields and sheep.’ Or maybe it is a landscape constructed from some ‘internal/forest.’” In Hamilton’s first “Night-Jar” poem, the day is coming to a close as the night-jar hawks for moths in the twilight hours. The imagery in this poem shows how life has continued over centuries of history, both in a temporal sense and physical sense, since past lives are literally buried beneath humans. There is so much “gone” (7) as the day ends, but the night-jar will continue living. At first it seems like an ending—the day, or history, is disappearing, but really, because it is gone and “past the rides” (7), that means a beginning is approaching. The night-jars are a lens Hamilton gives to the reader, through which we can observe life cycles.
In Hamilton’s second “Night-Jar” poem, a new day is brewing as the night-jar continues to hawk for moths. The imagery here still lends itself to disappearance, as “feathers / read as shadow” (2-3) and the bird disappears into the trees, “somewhere inside the edges” (6). Even the length of the poem, like the first “Night-Jar” poem, supports the theme of disappearance: “Hamilton writes short, smart, sometimes enigmatic poems that seem carved out of driftwood, or old bones” (Orr). But the poem still feels cyclical—the birds disappear, humans disappear, but at night the night-jars will continue to hawk for moths. This feels even more true since Corridor is bookended with these two poems, suggesting a full-circle factor. In contrast to the first “Night-Jar” poem, the second one starts at “the close / early hour” (1-2), making it feel like a beginning, but is actually an end, since day is near but something has disappeared. This contrast compliments the relationship between the two poems and the cyclical themes. Regarding the ending, a review states, “How appropriate to conclude with silence and stillness, the eye of the observer still humbly present” (Rensch). This connects the idea that the night-jars are the lens through which we view the natural cycles at work in Hamilton’s poems, a lens provided by Hamilton who is an observer herself.
The way Hamitlon weaves through different registers of language in these two poems points to the cycles present in history:
As the poet describes this natural world coexisting with the ruins of the “old bishopric,” her language moves to a more historical-poetical rhetoric (‘sentries,’ ‘thence,” “centuries’). The overlapping registers of language make us aware of the auditory present and the passage of lives and time, just as the imagery does—the elusive bird is both ‘near’ the tombstones and ‘Near us’ before ‘it’s gone.’ There’s wit here, combined with resignation. The poem seems to touch on the venerable, crumbling tradition of poetry itself… Hamilton’s are not poems that tell us how to be, but how things are (and become, and fall), and how one moves among them with a thoughtful, if elegiac, discernment. (Williams)
The mysterious night-jar that captivates Hamilton is the perfect tool to use to encourage readers to contemplate nature and the relationship humans share with nature, as well as how people exist in it and how people observe the world around them.
The last poem to be added to this conversation about how birds function in Hamilton’s poetry is “Classical Experiment.” The language and imagery in this poem also makes the reader feel like there is an underlying cycle of life at work. As the poem depicts, “after paradise, after a time, / the unfallen animals came down the road and went their separate ways: peacock, boar, / pheasant, rabbit; small birds roved / the fields and hedges; expanding under- / storeys of holley in the woodlands; / spitting rain” (6-13). This story echoes a creation myth: the ultimate beginning. Birds function in this poem to help put this idea across, especially the “small birds” (10) that show how this beginning is all encompassing, immense, and tactile, involving all senses, like the expanding image in the poem.
Hamilton gently prods the idea of life as an experiment, how plans come together after something has fallen apart; human lives are full of “successes and lapses” (13); in these life cycles, people build lives, fall apart, and build anew yet again. All of these paths taken are interconnected: “One gets the feeling that she is always stuck in a hallway, or a ‘corridor.’ But a corridor is not only a way of connecting rooms or railway cars; it also serves as link between two lands, and as a migratory path for birds” (Rensch). The focus on observation in Hamilton’s poetry, “Classical Experiment” included, shows how the reader is walking through this book as one walks through hallways. Although at first this may seem like an isolated endeavor, a corridor always leads somewhere else, and perhaps the birds are guiding the way. The “small birds” expanding are encouraging the reader to follow in any direction, moving forward to the next phase in whatever life cycle is underway, just like the night-jars allow the audience to observe beginnings and endings and how they may relate.
Human beings as flightless creatures are naturally captivated by birds. The ability to fly invokes the opposite; one cannot help but think of what it means to not have this ability. What about something in between? What happens when birds are frozen in air? Chang and Hamilton take birds to the next level, allowing them to function as storytellers about the different layers of identity in oneself and the world around them. Birds of unknown origin; black and white birds amid lightning strikes; birds as artificial as jewelry but as close as lovers—these two women poets create unforgettable creatures in their unforgettable poetry.
Chang, Tina. Of Gods & Strangers. Four Way Books, 2011.
Chang, Tina. Poetry Reading, 10 Nov. 2021.
“Fiction Book Review: Corridor by Saskia Hamilton.” Publishers Weekly, 16 June 2014, https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-55597-675-0. Accessed 26 Nov. 2021.
“Fiction Book Review: Of Gods & Strangers by Tina Chang.” Publishers Weekly, 24 Oct. 2011, https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-935536-17-8. Accessed 26 Nov. 2021.
Hamilton, Saskia. Corridor. Graywolf Press, 2014.
Hamilton, Saskia. Poetry Reading, 20 Oct. 2021.
Macfee, Laurie. “Book Review: Of Gods & Strangers by Tina Chang.” Sierra Nevada Review,
Sierra Nevada College’s Literary Journal, 24 Apr. 2014, https://blog.sierranevada.edu/sierranevadareview/2014/04/24/book-review-of-gods-strangers-by-tina-chang/. Accessed 26 Nov. 2021.
Orr, David. “David Orr’s 10 Favorite Poetry Books of 2014.” The New York Times, 22 Dec. 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/22/books/review/david-orrs-10-favorite-poetry-books-of-2014.html?ref=books&_r=0. Accessed 26 Nov. 2021.
St.-Lascaux, David. “Tina Chang with David St.-Lascaux.” The Brooklyn Rail, Oct. 2011, https://brooklynrail.org/2011/10/poetry/tina-chang-with-david-st-lascaux. Accessed 26 Nov. 2021.
Rensch, Katie. “Corridor.” New Pages, 1 Oct. 2014, https://www.newpages.com/item/27324 -corridor. Accessed 26 Nov. 2021.
Schaer, Robin B. “Tina Chang: Misfit and Starlet.” BOMB Magazine, 16 Feb. 2012, https://bombmagazine.org/articles/tina-chang-misfit-and-starlet/. Accessed 26 Nov. 2021.
Wendy. “A Conversation with Tina Chang.” Lantern Review Blog: Asian American Poetry Unbound, Lantern Review, http://www.lanternreview.com/blog/2012/03/22/a- conversation-with-tina-chang/#more-5270. Accessed 26 Nov. 2021.
Williams, Lisa. “Corridor by Saskia Hamilton.” The Rumpus, 16 May 2014, https://therumpus.net/2014/05/corridor-by-saskia-hamilton/. Accessed 26 Nov. 2021.
Thank you to my professor, Dr. Lucy McDiarmid, for teaching Women Poets as a class at Montclair State University, where I was encouraged to think about the role of birds in the poetry of Hamilton and Chang. The opportunity to see these poets read to our class was an incredible experience as an undergrad. Also, thank you to the English Department at MSU for thinking this essay worthy and honoring me with the Frank G. and Nicole McGuire Award.