Thursday, August 30, 2007



Birds and Fancies by Elizabeth Treadwell
(Shearsman Books, Exeter, UK)

Thoughts on Birds and Fancies

One of my favorite things about Elizabeth Treadwell’s Birds and Fancies is its simultaneous engagement with multiple histories--personal, literary, imagined, received, represented, remembered, recovered, and invented. These histories tangle and cleave in poem-maps and poem-weaves that invoke a dream-like sense of space and time. Birds and Fancies contains archaic spellings, collaborations with family members, kennings, music, epigrams, and complines. The title, after Margaret Cavendish’s 1653 book Poems, and Fancies, suggests both a companionable whimsy and a response to pre-existing texts. The relation of these histories and whimsies is idiosyncratic and intimate, sweet and un- self-conscious, risky and vulnerable. It is also political.

While Treadwell is clearly very interested in conceptualizations and representations of literary traditions, her poetic project is deeply personal--driven by interest, impulse, curiosity, pleasure, and politics. Politics because the personal is, after all, political, and Treadwell’s engagement with tradition is pursued in this vein. For Treadwell, making sense of the politics around what is presented as “traditional” and “historical” is a personal project, and this makes it all the more important to us.

Birds and Fancies is a book about being a woman and being a poet. It is also about being a mother. It questions the categories/ construction of “woman,” “poet,” and “mother.” Birds and Fancies is dedicated to the author’s daughter, and some of the poems seem as though they were written in anticipation of the daughter’s birth. There are also many references in Birds and Fancies to women poets and writers. In addition to Margaret Cavendish, there are references to Laetitia Elizabeth Landon, Lorine Niedecker, Alice Notley, Etel Adnan, Joyelle McSweeney, Renee Gladman, Melissa Benham, Medbh McGuckian, Jessica Smith, Juliana Spahr, Sarah Anne Cox, Elisa Kleven, and Beverly Dahlen. There are also references to Myles Coverdale, Philip Jenks, Timothy Gentner, and Robert Pinsky. For Treadwell, the references to other writers seem to be part of her negotiation of literary tradition; although history is a powerful political tool, tradition can also be a trap. Thus, Treadwell’s selections become even more powerful--strategic.

Birds and Fancies is 96 pages long and divided into five sections:

Long-legged waders (or a History of English Verse)
The Clove-pink
Ladyless or Gayntyl Maydenys
The Clove-pink: The Carnation Skirt/ Pink druzy
Mrs Greensleeves

The title of the first section suggests the animal as a type of history, yet it is only called “a History” in parentheses. I like how the formal definition and labeling of something that happened as “history” is something that occurs here in parentheses--in the margins. This first section also introduces the style and themes of the collection. The cadences are familiar, but also made strange. Additionally, the poems often engage a sort of unfettered syntax. These aesthetic choices align interestingly with Treadwell’s thematic concerns with tradition, family, and history. In the first poem “in cabbage-rose; or the mercy and glorie of Haley,” the object becomes the subject of the sentence: “Yes us will mix a lot, in palace glare, next quiet pool.” This sentence construction is employed throughout the poem, as are the archaic spellings and somewhat sing-songy rhythms. There is also a sweetness and optimism in the affirmation of this poem, particularly in the concluding imperative to remember: “Remember, yes, in the days us say. Oh daughter thou shalt grounde & playe, in these sweet days, happy happy shall you be, dressed like the sea, in cabbage-rose. In cabbage-rose.”

The second and fourth sections extend Treadwell’s cartography by mapping (enacting in language) what is received and transformed and resisted. The second section, “The Clove-pink,” contains 13 pages of very spare text, some of it dialogue (a daughter speaking to a mother); most of the pages have only two lines at top. The fourth section is similarly titled “The Clove-pink: The Carnation Skirt/ Pink druzy.” In this section the inspiration ranges from mishearing, Vogue magazine, and the blogosphere. The last poem in the fourth section, “Temporary,” ends with the lines “Resist the false maps of conquest./ England like a pile of sticks.” In the notes sections, Treadwell indicates that this poem is informed by both her daughter and her niece, as well as J.B. Harley’s essay “New England Cartography and the Native Americans” and the anonymous c. 1584 poem “A new Courtly Sonet, of the Lady Greensleeves, To the new tune of Greensleeves.” Thus, the poem exists within a matrix of inspiration and pre-existing texts. That this poem is called “Temporary” seems important: resistance and recovery can undermine the “false” authority of maps and received histories

The third section, “Ladyless or Gayntyl Maydens” contains two of my favorite moments in the entire collection. “In Cloudland” is a poem Treadwell indicates as “for and with my niece Violet.” It is a brief and whimsical poem, but it is also a powerful inquiry into the ideas of writing and authorship. There is an epigram from Ms. Musgrove’s Victorian Fairytale In Cloudland, which tells us Cloudland is a place where “children are able to visit in their shared dreams.” This sense of the dream/poem as a community space is especially powerful.

Up alphabet hill
& down the shady
hard curved roads
of your tiny youth

How’s it going,

The phrase “alphabet hill” suggests a landscape composed of letters, just as fairytales, histories, and poetries are also composed of these materials. Moreover, the relationship/collaboration as it is represented in language/text is a reminder that an understanding of “authorship” is dependent upon a text’s presentation.

Underneath this typed text is the awkward, handwritten print of a child. The handwritten print is not exactly legible; some of the letters are backwards, but one can just barely make out “Elisabet”(written backwards) and “Royal Highness” (also written backwards). The deciphering of this text is both pleasurable and challenging. It seems important that we make the effort to read this writing---not only for its meaning, but for its reminder of how we read. Here, it reminds us that we are reading the work of multiple writers, and also that one of the writers is a child. As much one of Treadwell’s strategies is to “unlearn” a certain type of training in language, the juxtaposition of her writing with that of her niece illustrates that this process of unlearning is different from simply returning to childhood.

The poem “Stuffed animals crammed into the Natural History Museum” is also a favorite and, like “In Cloudland,” is also written for a female relative. Treadwell indicates that this poem is “for my sister Margaret.”

The Individual palaces
of masculine and feminine
have crumbled
are crumbly in our time

into the global wrecking crew
into the bewildering fire
the surreptitious claims

far a girl can walk herself to kindergarten these days
in most kinds of western weather
with a glimpse toward the dustbinny wishing well, perhaps a short peek
into the books & equipment

The palaces, though crumbly, retain a sort of a power and one must confront their presence. Like relics, they are reminders of the past. One of Treadwell’s questions is whether and how representations/edifices of the past should be wrecked or revered or recovered. The recognition of these representations as gendered is important, for it forces us to ask if the crumbling of this difference is equally beneficial to men and women, and if there are differences in the types of crumbling. Additionally, as in other moments in the book, a sense of geography is intertwined with this tradition/history. The words “far a girl can walk herself to kindergarten these days / in most kinds of western weather” are a reminder that there are places where there are no kindergartens for girls or where women can’t walk alone at all.

The fifth and last section, “Mrs. Greensleeves,” contains a number of complines, thus mixing religious and folk traditions, the holy and the profane. “Mrs. Greensleeves,” a traditional English folk song, is said to be about a promiscuous woman or prostitute (her sleeves are green with grass stains). Complines, the final church service in the tradition of canonical hours, are also know as night prayers. Historically, these prayers were often said to “complete” the day and to commence a period of communal silence. Treadwell does seem to use the compline as a way to create community. This is most palpable in the poem “anonymous compline”:

we’ve all kind of in
the same spot been

The syntactical strangeness of this poem is made palpable by the familiarity of its sentiment. Additionally, the re-arrangement of the traditional word order echoes the idea itself; which is to say, just as the words are not in their usual places, so have “we” been in and out of our usual “place”--both literally and figuratively. There is an elegance in this seemingly simple gesture, and it seems integral to the entire collection’s underpinning.

That the word “other” is within the word “mother” suggests the difficulty of bringing another human being into a world already populated by human beings and their multiple histories. For Treadwell, the poem is one way of making sense of this difficulty.


Michelle Detorie edits WOMB and Hex Presse. Visit her online:


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