Poetry

“Magpies Recognize Themselves in the Mirror,”
by Kelli Russell Agodon

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Most of us have heard of a “murder of crows,” and the term has made its way into quite a few poems that have passed by my desk in the last decade. It turns out that the collective noun “murder” also can be used to describe a flock of magpies and, because of its initial consonance, “murder of magpies” sounds even better to my ear. It’s also a good semantic fit because magpies are such raucous and even violent birds, living in large colonies, loud with intense turf squabbles.

A collective noun is a singular term such as “family” or “flock” that designates a group, a single noun that describes something plural. Terms of “venery” (archaic for “hunting”) are collective nouns for animals. The tradition of naming animals collectively dates back to the medieval times and the Book of Saint Albans. A list currently available on Wikipedia includes those old terms along with others still in common usage, a fun read where you’ll discover delights such as the collective nouns for mules (a “barren” or “span”) and penguins (a “convent,” “creche,” “raft,” or my favorite, a “tuxedo”). You may want to check out An Exultation of Larks (Penguin 1993) by James Lipton, an entire book of collective noun lists that unearth gems like a “slouch of models,” a “shrivel of critics,” an “unction of undertakers,” a “blur of Impressionists,” a “score of bachelors,” a “pocket of quarterbacks,” and more.

Turning back to today’s poem, let’s begin with the title, “Magpies Recognize Themselves in the Mirror.” A Google search led me to this article, complete with an amusing video: “Mirror test shows magpies aren’t so bird-brained.” It reports on research showing that magpies can recognize their own reflected images, the first time the ability has been seen in non-mammals. As the article explains:

In humans, the ability to recognize oneself in a mirror develops around the age of 18 months and coincides with the first signs of social behavior. So-called “mirror mark tests”, where a mark is placed on the animal in such a way that it can only be observed when it looks at its reflection, have been used to sort the self-aware beasts from the rest.

Of hundreds tested, in addition to humans, only four, apes, bottlenose dolphins and Asian elephants, have passed muster. [Source here]

The significance of these ideas does not become apparent until the poem has been read all the way through and the title returned to, as poem titles often are, functioning as a sort of coda.

“Magpies Recognize Themselves in the Mirror” begins with the above-mentioned “murder of magpies” and quickly moves into its real subject, the emotional difficulty of living in contemporary politics-riven America. By the end, the poem becomes a mirror in which we recognize ourselves in the collective nouns “flock” and “murder,” terms that “hold us” the way collective nouns contain their constituent parts. Diction is simple, and syntax and punctuation are regular. The figure of speech governing this poem is its central or extended metaphor that, in the end, equates human beings—us—with those magpies.

Consisting of 17 lines of unmetered, unrhymed free verse, the poem begins in paradox, juxtaposing the humdrum activity of “replacing our cabinet knobs” against the more exalted activity of “chang[ing] the world.” We are powerless to change our brutal world, the poem says, so we distract ourselves with trivial activities like redecorating, and visiting the local mall. The word “America” in line 4 functions as a collective noun, a singular term that defines and holds all the people in this country. It’s a group that can, especially in these fraught times, be difficult to be a part of—at times it “breaks” the speaker’s “heart” and “some days” it “breaks itself into two,” or begins to lose its collective identity (line 5).

What follows in lines 6-17 is a wrenching example of that dissolution in the form of a woman having a public breakdown in a mall—crying and hurling her purse into a store. In an example of ironic juxtaposition, the name of the store, associated with shallow, fashion-obsessed tweens (“Forever 21”), is referenced in the same breath as behavior that is serious, sad, and even shocking. The woman is merely enacting what many of us are feeling inside every day, a reality made clear by the way the walls of the store become a vessel, like a collective noun, that can “hold us,” and by the subsequent reference to seeing “us” held and “peeking out” from inside the hurled purse. The dialogue italicized in lines 13-14, “Some days / the sky is too bright,” grounds the narrative and provides the woman’s motivation. It has all become too intense, and she has had enough. This is the cue for her tribe or flock to rally around her and in the poem: “we” (or at least “some of us” do, “reaching our wings to her.” (lines 16-17).

I love the way this poem manages to become not just the mirror in which we recognize ourselves but also the vessel that acknowledges our political divisions while still seeing and holding us all, along with those differences. Since the 2016 election, I’ve been wondering how to accomplish this in life; that is, how to build a bridge between liberals and conservatives in America and, more personally, a bridge from my own political beliefs to those held by my family in western Pennsylvania, a state that broke tradition to go red in the last election. The poem builds such a bridge by doing what author Anne Pancake, in an essay in The Georgia Review, called “dreaming forward”—the notion that if a thing can be imagined, it can be named, and if it can be named, it may one day become reality. In other words, literature can be a way to dream things into existence. The poet Theodore Roethke may have been referring to this when he wrote a line that has long obsessed me, something like ‘I say ‘bird’ and lo! It flies.’ It’s an awesome power, the power to create reality, and from it, Pancake intuits an artistic obligation to imagine a better future that does not yet, but could, exist in the world:

I believe literature’s most pressing political task of all in these times is envisioning alternative future realities. My biggest disappointment with my own political novel is not the missteps where I strayed into polemic or awkwardly integrated information. My biggest disappointment is that my novel does not provide vision beyond the contemporary situation in central Appalachia. I have learned that it’s much easier to represent a political situation in literature than it is to propose alternatives—to dream forward—without lapsing into Pollyannaism or cynicism. But I’ve come to believe that the greatest challenge for many twenty-first-century artists is to create literature that imagines a way forward which is not based in idealism or fantasy, which does not offer dystopia or utopia, but still turns current paradigms on their heads. [“Creative Responses to Worlds Unraveling: The Artist in the 21st Century” by Ann Pancake, The Georgia Review, Fall 2013]

Sometimes, then, poetry tells us not how it is but how it could be. Not all the people in “Magpies Recognize Themselves in the Mirror” come forward to help—some turn (“fly”) away—but enough do come forward to offer the woman comfort and remind her she is not alone. Maybe it is here, in small acts of caring, that we can preserve the ideals that created our country and still presumably constitute our collective identity. That idea gives me hope, something I am grateful for in these dark and divisive times.

 

 

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  • Martha Hansen January 23, 2020 at 8:55 am

    We are all connected, in pain and in joy.

    Reply