Then Freedom: Melinda Palacio’s Bird Forgiveness
3: A Taos Press, 2018
Reviewed by Tyler Robert Sheldon
Melinda Palacio’s new work Bird Forgiveness is a testament to living with great care, both personal and global. The collection, which is circular in its structure (opening with a bird and closing with a moment of flight), is certainly deeply personal, but it is also highly ecocritical in its talk of what we are doing to the environment around us—and how we can hope to preserve or even improve it, via our place therein. Palacio’s book opens with a prescient tercet epigraph: “If birds were larger than we are, / how would the world arrange itself, / who would woman this garden?” Here the idea of stewardship is immediately evoked, as is the need for respecting the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be.
In “Caged Bird Cries,” the opening poem, we meet Lola, and this white cockatoo is very much like us in a few notable ways. Though she “lives in a cage that looks like a house with a picket fence,” she is a jealous bird: “admire [the smaller birds’] colors, win Lola’s bird / wrath. She raises hell, her yellow crown, and cries, “Look at me, look at Lola, me, Lola.” This bird speaks in Spanish and in expletives, reminding us that while we are not alone, we should set a good example for other animals that may end up too much like us.
All the same, we are also shaped by a subjective world that we in turn bend to our liking. “Of Cork and Feathers” shows the defenses people put up around themselves: “She named her home the bird house / but kept no birds.” This label is symbolic—a metaphor—as the poem explains. “The motif of cork and feathers meant / more than flying away, flitting from city to city, / taking up residence in warmer climes.” This unnamed character explores the world, maintaining a small space of constancy to return to, to ward against the altering winter outside. This understandable impulse is common for many people and sheds light on our need to preserve a part of the world for ourselves.
Later in the collection, “Year of the Rooster” reveals an irreconcilable difference sprouted from differing cultures. The narrator’s husband’s family enjoys robin soup, something the narrator cannot accept for herself. The poem’s ending lines sum up this difficulty with gracious elegance: “A beautiful jumble of Chinese and Mexican never had a chance / to be, to exist, to refuse a bowl of hot soup, still life with robin.” Here the robin is a microcosm, a metonym for the world: it is not be consumed, but to be nurtured, and to do less is anathema to the narrator’s perspective. Still later, in “Nothing Up Her Sleeves,” a magician’s assistant learns the art of making a canary disappear, eventually getting it right most of the time—and she learns that she doesn’t even need Max, her partner, to make a name for herself. We discover this toward the poem’s end:
When the audience applauds,
she realizes she never needed . . .
his towering shadow; she
leaves his worn size nine shoes
at the last train station.
Even though this poem evinces a different sort of separation for radically different reasons, the root cause is somewhat related to “Rooster” in that, eventually, perhaps we are sometimes too alike in our experiences—mastery through extremes, whether they be culinary or magical. To preserve ourselves within the world, these two poems seem to suggest, we must embrace these without compromise.
Still later in Bird Forgiveness, “Sea of Love Revisited” provides an excellent lens through which to view our world. Toward the poem’s end, the narrator (in the water practicing yoga) is reminded of just how wise our feathered companions truly are: “When angry words prevail because the pitch rings louder / and not truer, I recall the wisdom of birds,” she muses. “I leave a trail of breadcrumbs / for any who dare hear the tremolo of my voice unhinged.” Reciprocating in this way—both thanking the birds for their wisdom, their forgiveness, as well as leading them to her—is a fitting action for a narrator who seems so in harmony with them. As Palacio points out, the world is full of interconnection, and to preserve it and help it grow, we must respect and cherish all who live within it. And when it is time to go, Palacio’s narrator hopes, may it be as lovely and noble as the life that precedes that time. “When She Calls” provides as beautiful an image as could be striven for: “Death bright as lemon meringue pie and quickly gone / into a happy belly is what I wish for you,” she affirms. Life in the world and what comes after, as interconnected as this book’s iridescent poems, are more exquisite than we might dare to hope. In Bird Forgiveness, that life and that world spread their wings to welcome us.
Readers can purchase Bird Forgiveness at one of Palacio’s many readings or from 3: A Taos Press, as well as from regional and national booksellers.