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Why We Chose It

Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s poems “Black-Bellied Whistling Ducks” and “Red-Breasted Nuthatches” appear in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.

A few years ago, Joshua Corey and I were in the thick of editing The Arcadia Project. At some point—I don’t remember exactly when—I recall Josh rolling his eyes and saying, with emphasis, “not another &*%$# bird poem.” The journal Conjunctions had just run a fine bird-themed issue, and it might have been Eric Linsker’s poems that elicited this reaction; I’m no longer quite sure. We did, for the record, include those poems in our anthology, but the fact was that by the end of our editing process, we’d come to think of contemporary American nature poetry (of whatever persuasion) as one part trees, one part birds, and one part . . . everything else.

The inheritances of Romanticism do not go gently into that good night, and for good reason. (See the work of the British ecopoet Peter Larkin, a Wordsworth aficionado and tree-addict whose verse is among the most conceptually and formally challenging I know.) I had already encountered Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s bird poems in journals when he submitted a sheaf to KR in the fall of 2014, and in spite of my admiration for Behm-Steinberg’s prosody, my first reaction mimicked Josh’s, minus the typography. But Behm-Steinberg’s idiom is so unpredictably lavish—I well remember a key line from a poem of his we’d rejected back in 2006, “Why won’t you be lavish?” (and I thought: well, why not indeed??)—that I kept reading.

If one is going to don the mantle of the Romantics, then one should don it with panache. And these are more than panache-donning; these are shiveringly good poems, less in debt to Coleridge, Wordsworth, and other forest-wanderers than to Hopkins, whose eye they share, but with a contemporary vocal apparatus that enables Behm-Steinberg to pull off the trick of anthropomorphism without seeming coy or labored. When Behm-Steinberg’s black-bellied whistling duck declares “I don’t live in boring world I know decades of weaponized water I perch in trees,” we see, in a single line, how far we’ve come from Shelley’s blithe spirit. Indeed I read “Black-Bellied Whistling Ducks” as a direct, sharp answer to Shelley, by way of a Tom Uttech painting or perhaps one of Michael Oatman’s minatory Struwwelpeter collages.

“Red-Breasted Nuthatches” is even trickier, because it’s never quite clear who the “I” is, and who the “you”: one is presumably a human speaker, and the other the eponymous nuthatch(es), but the poem plays this distinction off so neatly that addresser and addressee keep shifting, caught ever just out of focus (even though the first line disingenuously suggests that the species will be addressed not in first or second person, but in third). When the speaker of the poem asserts “I will live in a nest built out of death, I will seal the entrance with pitch,” it could be anyone—you, me, a red-breasted nuthatch, Hopkins’s ghost. Someone in this poem survives—remorselessly thrives, even—despite catastrophe (war, climate change), but…who? “Unrecognizable and loving flowers, the fire of disasters you return you like even the worst places, a part of my shoulderblade’s buried there”—the poem launches itself deftly out of conventional syntax even as it surrenders a part of itself. You, as a term, merely returns more you, whether human or nuthatch, all of us encircled by distant man-made satellites.

I’m thrown back on the first poem, wondering whether I was right to assign the speaker a nonhuman valence so quickly. “So glad to still have a body,” someone says—“I put my hand anywhere I want to and you won’t tell me to stop. All rules release us. Vociferous in flight.”