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Haunting Echoes

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 3, March/April 2013
p. 24 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0035

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

when a winter wren speaks,
I am spoken to in wren—
a language of words that is all verb,

all swoop, swerve, feint and balk,
all action, all transformative like
  water’s talk or fire’s.

Charles Weld’s Who Cooks for You? is a deeply meditative, formal collection of verse. Every other poem is a sonnet, but all of the work in the collection considers the relationship between humans and birds, man and history, imagination and reality and sound and meaning. The same speaker—the I we come to know well—narrates this collection that is held together by song; the song of owls, ravens, vireos, yellowthroats and the great blue heron. This collection dares to ask the hard questions of our human condition, has us wondering “who, here today, will not be here this time next year?”

Questioning appears to be an inherent aspect of Weld’s poetics. The book title takes the form of a question, as does the first poem in the collection— “What Do Crows Know?” In a move that will appear again and again throughout the collection, Weld begins “What Do Crows Know?” grounded in a realistic discussion of crows, but halfway through begins to conflate the crows with his kin, “probably scattered and flown on / the way our ancestors must have eventually / gathered belongings and moved on.” And later, in “Barred Owl,” when the speaker’s favorite student is murdered in Harlem, he becomes “innocent enough to misjudge risk / like the mouse in the field guide photograph, /caught unawares by the camera flash.”

The birdsongs, easily the most memorable aspect of this collection, take on a life of their own and become a kind of meditation on the meaning of language. The “quock quock” of the raven, the “keeer keeer” of the starling and the “crok crok” of the blue heron work to bring us into the woods with the speaker. These birdsongs are in the present tense; they occur as we read the poem. Through sound, Weld brings the reader in view of the birds who are “stick-picking, chick-sitting, hawk-gawking.” Even the obvious rhymes peppered throughout every poem work toward bringing the reader fully into the world of the speaker, and consequently, to contemplate alongside the speaker the meaning in sound. Take, for example, the first few lines of the sonnet “White-throated Sparrow”:

An a and h separate empty from empathy,
the ah! that comes when we move to
 feeling from receptivity—
ah, also, the first syllable Thoreau wrote
each time he transcribed the song of the
sparrow in his journals from the Maine
Ah te, e, e, te, e, e, te different than Ah

In this sonnet, the speaker—and the reader—are asked to consider how even the smallest shift in sound can alter meaning, as in the case of “empty” and “empathy.” Such an attention to the sound of words that humans speak works in conjunction with the sound of the birds’ calls. Both make meaning, the speaker concludes, but in which can one find truth? This investigation into the nature of sound and language opens the door to the larger questions brought up in the collection—questions most of us would rather not ask because we have not the tools with which to express ourselves. Indeed, “What verb describes lament’s trajectory?”

The phrase, “Who cooks for you?” is echoed throughout the collection, from the title, to a line in “Barred Owl,” to the title poem—and this echoing, like a birdcall, haunts the reader. The line itself references the hoot of the barred owl, often described as sounding like the phrase “who cooks for you.” Again sound and meaning are being conflated in order to sort out how meaning can come from “bird songs and calls, insects, their galls.”

Weld seeks “the scurry underneath the wren’s long song / that undoes the possibility of narrative completely” in order to dig into deeper philosophical questions about himself and all of us. Much of the collection feels extremely particular, such as the “letter my family must have read and reread / all through the fall of 1857” in “Family Story...

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