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Jorn Ake

"Boys Whistling like Canaries"

A Poem


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 Whisting like Canaries - Jorn Ake

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.


This moment—


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.


Then silence

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


walking backwards,

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

buried someplace


no one remembers,


except for that one note

you just heard a canary sing


right overhead—


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.

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