"Boys Whistling like Canaries"
By Jorn Ake
Boys Whistling like Canaries, my third book, started when I wrote “Atlas Ptaku,” a poem essentially about being apart from language and struggling to find familiarity in the unfamiliar or foreign. It was 2001. I was living in Prague, a lovely city with an impossible language. The United States was rapidly decaying into what seemed to be a more totalitarian form of democracy, and I was wrestling with my doubts that a poet could, in such times, legitimately continue to spin lovely little abstractions out of the quotidian that conversely served to push reality and the immediate further and further from the surface of the poem. Abstraction as deconstruction of fact is one thing, but as a product of fear or self-protection, abstraction felt like acquiescence.
I felt instead that I needed to write more directly political work. For some reason, I had inculcated into my process a prohibition against political content. Over and again, I have been startled and chagrined to discover that I have delayed the evolution of my own creative process through self-imposed structures on what I am or am not allowed to do. The only correction I have found is to study everything with Wolfgang Tillmans’ mantra firmly in mind - “If one thing matters, everything matters.”
And so I went to a show of Philip Guston’s work at the British Academy in London. In that show, there was a giant placard on the wall that discussed Guston’s decision to discard the phenotype of abstraction and make his daily drawings the central element of his work. “I got sick and tired of all that purity - I wanted to tell stories.” Guston made his decision during a similarly disruptive political period of the late 1960’s - protests against the war in Vietnam, marches for civil rights, the riots in Chicago, Detroit and Newark, the murders of students at Kent State, and the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.
I realized I wanted to tell stories, and I was not at all interested in a lot of purity. Purity seemed a code for fear. I had already been contacted by an editor who worried that a line in a poem to be published in their journal was too “harsh.” In my poem, “Rachel Carson,” from my second book, The Circle Line, I had written: “Oh Middle America, how sometimes I hate / your good brown shoes.” The editor wanted to change “hate” to “dislike” or “like less than I do other things” or some other crap, because they were afraid. Pure and simple. After explaining to them that I was merely expressing a love-hate relationship with my fellow citizen, something with which I felt everyone could identify, and that love-hate included love as well as hate, the editors begrudgingly accepted the line. And I resolved I would never be that afraid.
I started writing the poem “Boys Whistling like Canaries” while I was on Tenerife in the Canary Islands, enjoying the sun and fog beneath the giant volcano of Mount Teide. I had learned a couple of interesting pieces of historical information. The first was that Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator, had been banished to Tenerife to cool his jets after an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the government early in his illustrious career. Reading around for information on Franco, I found Antony Beevor’s book on the Spanish Civil War. In his book, Beevor detailed speeches by Franco that anticipated the rhetoric emanating from the mouths of Bush administration officials at that very moment. The associative resonance was uncanny. Had they the speeches of Franco in their hands, the speech writers in the Bush administration could not have created a better imitation.
I also discovered that the evil of the Spanish Civil War had not left the Canary Islands alone, though they are so far away from continental Spain as to be Africa. The various intellectuals, communists, socialists and other citizens of Tenerife deemed dangerous by the Nationalists had been rounded up and put into a banana warehouse where they were all shot to death. Later, the banana warehouse was torn down, and a football field was built in its place. That seemed to be a slightly ironic difference from other massacres in the twentieth century, as quite a few of them took place in football fields that were later down and turned into other things. And the profound difficulty of extracting the memory of sites such as these was eloquently illustrated by Francesc Torres’ documentary work, Dark Is the Room Where We Sleep, which I saw in 2007 at the International Center of Photography in New York City.
Finally, I had a quote from Franco that seemed to capture the essential nature of his motivation: “You must make the law obey God’s will and not man’s desire to be free from it.” I am paraphrasing from memory here, because in the poem, I changed the quote to fit some of the motifs in later poems and now that line is what I remember best. But what a concept - that God is a prison and not a deliverance! Not redemption but incarceration! The Pearly Gates suddenly seem a lot less inviting.
What to do with all this...permission? I was sitting in a small square full of lime trees in the town of Garachico on the northwest shore of Tenerife, the canaries were singing at the top of each tree, and a small cup of espresso was waiting on the table for me to do something with it. Then a boy went twirling across the square, kicking up a small stack of pigeons while whistling some over-loud nonsensical tune that, for a moment, seemed to match the songs of the canaries.
Boys Whistling like Canaries
If there was a mountain and then a mountain on the mountain,
then there would be a path that ran up to the base of that mountain
like the beginning of a story about a heaven.
And if there was a heaven, then there would be an island below it
green orange trees circling a red square full of singing canaries,
the flocks of boys beneath basking on sidewalks
dreaming like pigeons drowsing on rooftop edges
while waiting for someone
to drop a piece of sandwich onto the ground.
If only I could find my way down to this earth
then I could eat its food and remember
that when I was a young pigeon—
that when I was young,
I too was a pigeon, like you.
But this is not that story
because I was born out of doubt
seven months after my parents married each other
in a small church below the cliffs above the sea—
this is not that story
because I have been unable to believe in a heaven for years—
this story is about the note you hear
in the song of the canary just now,
a lightweight sound, a tiny breath
they learned from a boy not unlike that boy
whistling his way across the parched expanse of this square—
the Placa de Generalissimo
named for the general banished to this island that Bolívar left
in order to free the new world, the old one being already lost
to the madness of decrepitude and the false preservatives of nationalism.
But you must know, every man is a boy gone mad with age.
As mad as the botanical gardens planted here in 1788,
its seeds of enlightenment grown unnaturally.
No complexity of pattern and shade from its branches,
no careful art of pruning to entwine a riot of vegetation
into a diverse botany captured apart from nature
but a still and stagnant memento mori to landscape,
each plant a geriatric miracle of its species
perfectly spaced apart the precise width of the head gardener’s leather shoe
allowing him to more easily eliminate unwanted vegetation
while bringing water each day around noon to pacify the rest.
These wide boulevards the generalissimo might embrace
as he did this placa lazily strewn with café tables and chairs,
his arms outstretched to demonstrate in his conspiracy the width
a full battalion might require to take a city’s center on the march,
the first warmth of the morning tripping off the mountain’s edge,
and the fog falling all the way down the hillside
to the sea and all the ships in port.
The head gardener was a man with no patience for generals.
He was a scientist and believed in the working man,
not because he had read Marx and Engels
or sung “L’Internationale” on the first of May,
but because his copy of Das Kapital was made hollow in the center
to hold a small glass bottle of homemade apricot brandy
stoppered with an ancient waxed cork wrapped in string—
my sweet dialectic he said—
retrieved from its place on a shelf in his small wooden office
stashed in a dark corner of the garden walls
where he and his assistants would begin each day with a coffee
cooked in a brass pot on a brazier and laced with the brandy
as antidote to the aches and pains that came with being part of reality—
that most men, in order to feed and shelter their families, have only their bodies
to give in exchange.
And so I cannot blame the head gardener
for using his shoe to measure out the spacing of his plants
or for his lack of elegance when pruning his trees—
though his education might allow him different
he worked as hard as his men, his back bent to the shovel,
and dug down into the black soil like any grave digger
stolidly building a final home for himself.
His son was a boy who dreamed like the crow flies
with a jungle of limbs akimbo, flopping and squawking his way
through the house out onto the street and down the narrow steps
to the placa where the generalissimo sat ensconced upon his wobbly wire chair
halfway through his soliloquy of overthrow and redemption.
By now the boy was whistling
a tune everyone he passed felt was so familiar
they were surprised when they could not recall its name—
perhaps part Mozart, a bit of jota, a little flamenco
he might have heard one night over the small brown radio
his father kept stashed behind a cupboard in the kitchen,
or a piece of the music that wailed from the club with the green light
spilled from its doors late at night when the men stumbled out,
or the voice of his mother calling to him come home small one
or even the songs of the canaries that filled each tree
and every block in every town and village across this island
that was becoming every day more and more like a cage
and less like a step on a path at the base of a mountain
that led to a story of heaven tilting and gleaming at the edge of the sky.
But the tune in the boy’s whistle does not matter
because truthfully, the boy was whistling no tune
except the one created by the contours of his unconscious,
the notes going precisely where he was going
and occupying exactly what he was thinking—
nowhere and nothing
like a canary perched at the top of its tree
its breast splitting open the sky with its lime-green
singing the only tune that had ever been in its head.
let it all rain down.
The heavens, the mountain, the story of how the path came to be.
Every hundred years, the mountain explodes,
the last in 1909.
Let’s have an early one.
Better everyone die here—
the generalissimo in his wobbly chair,
the boy in his song, his father
the head gardener and his men
sipping dialectic and coffee from fertilizer cans—
than the million who would die afterwards.
But no, the generalissimo heard the boy whistling
and immediately knew this nothing
now rapidly effeminizing his country
as he was just telling his conspiracy gathered about him like flies
had to be stopped—
You must wrestle the law like an angel
to make it obey
God’s will and not man’s desire to be free.
And so he consigned the boy to his prodigious memory
to be recalled three years later and added to a list
written out carefully on the best paper
at a desk once owned by a king or a king’s bastard son
by a secretary with a lisp who had never thought
she would get anywhere or any place so grand
without first removing her underclothes—
about which I can assure you, she was not wrong.
Later, the general would boast with pride,
his country had so many prominent intellectuals,
in so many cities the army had to use the football stadium
in order to kill them all.
Bullfighting rings being too small.
Except on the island, where the boy and his father
(because where would a boy get nothing from
if not from his own father?)
were led by the guardia to an empty banana warehouse
unilluminated except for the shafts of sunlight streaming
through rivet holes cut all around in the corrugated steel,
and pushed towards a group of men loitering at one end
neighbors, cousins and friends
all of them shivering though it was not cold.
Perhaps from nerves
or perhaps from the absence of nerves
the boy began to whistle
but this time
for the first time
he was not whistling a tune made of nothing
but the tune sung by the canary
trapped by the bird man with the small shop
downtown next door to the motorbike repair—
a canary who after years singing from the top of his tree
in the placa, found himself suspended in a small wire cage
with rust spots at each of its welds—
a cage nailed to the yellow wall of the shop
that the canary had just realized
would likely be his tomb—
this song of sudden mortality
was the one the boy whistled now.
It made the men of the guardia
go mad immediately,
and they shot them all, an entire warehouse of men,
in less than twelve minutes,
the boy hit first in the throat
so that he fell beneath a steadily growing pile
of men in great bunches,
the air so thick with smoke and explosions
and the cries of men dying calling out for each other
their wives and their children and God
you might have thought the volcano indeed was erupting.
save a last breath escaping
through the hole in the throat of the boy.
How do you explain this sort of madness
except that it must come from the songs of the birds
as their last revenge for the cages of men?
Afterwards, the mother took her broom
and a chair from the café to the edge of the town
and began sweeping the earth
from one side to the other.
She started at the base of the mountain
and slowly worked her way up
her footsteps disappearing
as her steady broom left behind
a smooth gray path in the volcanic soil
that her neighbors followed worriedly
urging her home, wringing their hands
asking her what are you thinking,
where are you going
only to receive each time the same answers
Of a heaven.
To meet Bolívar.
Until they finally stopped asking
and then they stopped going.
And then they started to forget.
When the mother finally reached the top
she set down her broom, set up her chair,
and made a black cup of coffee.
Then she sat down and waited
to disappear into thin air.
If there were a heaven, she would have found it then.
But if there wasn’t, then she just rotted away.
And if there wasn’t a heaven, then perhaps there wasn’t a path.
And if not a path, then not a mountain or an island
or a town or a square or a boy.
If you like, I can confess that none of the details here are true,
a crime for which perhaps I should be shot,
but you cannot deny the canaries singing at the top of each tree.
And if there are canaries, consider whether each note
might not be a body
no one remembers,
except for that one note
you just heard a canary sing
a lightweight note, a tiny breath
that may only leave your body
through a hole in your throat.
Jorn Ake is a poet who lives in New York City, where he rides his bicycle around and around Central Park every day when he really should be writing.
Boys Whistling like Canaries is available from Eastern Washington University Press (now distributed by Carnegie Mellon University Press). The Circle Line was published by The Backwaters Press, and Asleep in the Lightning Fields is available from the Texas Review Press.