A BIRD BLACK AS THE SUN: california poets on crows and ravens

A Bird Black As The Sun: California Poets on Crows and Ravens, edited by Enid Osborn and Cynthia Anderson
reviewed by LJ Moore

Green Poet Press, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-615-53632-3

Can you hear
the ax buried in a foreign tree, the child
floating like ashes above the lost town,
can you hear the vanished world? I remember
the three crows, especially their silences.

-Philip Levine

You might be in Denmark, stumbling from a pub in the wee hours. The sky is cold and black, and full of ice-white stars, which are inked out for a moment by a soaring emptiness that stinks of carrion and momentarily unhinges you from warmth and happiness. You have just glimpsed the Valravn: a supernatural raven and lost soul who has already drunk, or must drink, the blood of a child.

Or perhaps you find yourself on a high bluff overlooking an ocean stretching limitlessly to the west: far below, a pale beach undulates north into the mist, and a large black bird lands beside you and cocks its head to one side in preparation to speak. In this case, you are in California, either at Point Conception or Point Reyes, and you are likely dead. This raven is here to guide your journey to the next world.

The presence of Raven and his smaller, more raucous cousin Crow is intimately woven with human storytelling, and more deeply with a sense of human conscience. In Norse mythology, Huginn and Muninn, often translated as thought and memory, were raven familiars of Odin, traveling effortlessly to far-flung realms and bringing back visions and insights. On the biblical ark, the raven broke the prohibition against sex and objected to being first to be sent by Noah to look for dry land. Crow is Australia’s Aboriginal answer to Prometheus, stealing fire for his people… while the Raven of the Pacific Northwest went full bore and brought light to the world by “stealing” the sun. In the Quran, a raven teaches humans to bury their dead (and to hide their fratricide.)  If the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it, which may be because the decapitated head of Bran, the Irish hero whose name means Crow, is buried beneath that selfsame tower. In Tibet, a pair of crows cared for the infant Dalai Lama. Or as any Arkansas granny can tell you, count the number in a group of flying crows to perform an augury:

One for sorrow,
Two for luck; (or mirth)
Three for a wedding,
Four for death; (or birth)
Five for silver,
Six for gold;
Seven for a secret,
Not to be told;
Eight for heaven,
Nine for hell,
And ten for the devil’s own self!

A Bird Black as the Sun is a new anthology of poetry that evolved in Santa Barbara, California, where a reading series on the theme of crows and ravens revealed that these mischievous, uncanny birds are still as ubiquitous as (if not more than) ever in the emotional and intellectual landscape of storytelling. If the savagery of the valravn myth seems somewhat remote and archaic, this collection of poetry offers an updated vision from 85 California poets on how corvids have shapeshifted alongside our need to dream of them. It turns out that Odin’s ravens, thought and memory, are still flying, twin shadows into which we cast our sense of the absurd humiliation of being physical:

Who ever would have dreamed
the broad winged raven of despair
would quit the air and go
bandylegged upon the ground,
a common crow?

-Kay Ryan

our horrors that are tied up with hope:

Maybe they’re the Dead
returned, come to tell us
they’re not elsewhere, but here
-Danusha Laméris

our fear of (and desire for) oblivion:

You from the void
between worlds,
you with no sense of time
-Abigail Brandt

and our shameless habit of making what we admire into both a mirror and an escape hatch:

a Houdini of crows

into the day’s interior

-Susan Kelly-De Witt

The range of visions and characters of ravens and crows—as fellow travelers, as omens, as Awakener, Enigma, Omen, Likeness, Messenger, or Muse… is also reflected by a range of poetic styles and traditions. There are well-known and established poets, as well as accessible meditative and lyric poetic styles. But there are also outliers: experimentalists with darker, more abstract, subsonic voices that would slip unregistered past many editors’ radar, but are included here, representing the fecund range of writing to be found in California, and the more unnamable, interstitial spaces in which these birds are our eyes, our ears, extensions of a vision of the future we can’t yet fully visualize:

…the violet-tinged feathers wove
into a fence, rising and falling in the breeze
-Carol V. Davis

Whenever one speaks, ten thousand words stand up,
Point to a tower unfurling like an endless exhalation…

-R.S. Read

but can feel gathering:

The pavement is collapsing.
A dark black wing is starting to rise.

-Dian Sousa

The night never wants to end, to give itself over
to light. So it traps itself in things: obsidian, crows.

-Joseph Stroud

and just when we were getting so very serious, that trickster saves our asses:

Spooky, a one-winged raven, swears that Coit Tower is a doomsday
rocket designed to send an elite gaggle of their airborne commandos
to a future ruled by apes and seagulls. There they will learn to fish
with lasers and blow all mammals back to the Stone Age. Ravens rule!

-John F. Buckley and Martin Ott

Upcoming Readings: A Bird Black As The Sun
Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, 7 p.m.

Books Inc.
601 Van Ness
San Francisco, CA
Host: Connie Post