I’m known for being fairly loquacious (Verbose? wordy? as one otherwise decent person described me: Sonically all over the place). This wasn’t always true. I didn’t talk until I was four years old and then my first words were, ‘I don’t like cauliflower.”
What I did do was stare out the windows of our house a lot, usually at birds. In the Elizabeth New jersey of the 1960’s the industrial revolution had been victorious, with most song birds vanquished and Starlings, as well as English Sparrows dominating. Oh sure: rock pigeons were plentiful, too. All of these birds were immigrants, as were most of our parents.
The street I lived on had been a farm at one time in the 19th century and the farmer had left behind a white mulberry tree (He may have had an ambition for silk) and a peach tree. We had a tall Mulberry whose berries stained our feet purple all June and a peach tree whose fruit never seemed to ripen. We used the peaches as projectiles to throw at each other’s heads. We were city kids, in what was sometimes called the arm pit of America, but, in other respects, I feel I grew up kind of wild and woodsy. Some rumor of this fruit paradise must have reached otherwise rare native birds: I saw a Cedar Waxwing (I didn’t know what it was), then cardinals, then, a shit load of Mourning doves. I liked the mourning doves best. They made a whistling sound as they fled. I later found out this tea kettle whistle emanated from a bone in their wings—a sort of whistle in the wings. I found out because, in 1965, the Britannica encyclopedia arrived at our home, carried in by a guy who had a six-inch ash hanging from his stogie. It came along with a complimentary fake wooden book case (it was press board) complete with equally fake sliding glass doors. I thought sliding glass doors made it classy. I loved the knobby feel of the book covers, all lines up neatly.. I became an encyclopedia fanatic and looked up everything from Aphid to Zues. In between the bug and the god were birds and whenever I saw something other than the Starlings and Sparrows, I hunted it down in the junior Britannica (which were bright red). It was there I found out the bird I watched hanging upside down from our silver Maple was a nut hatch, part of the woodpecker family. It flicked bark down to earth in its relentless search for bugs and sap, and even flicked some onto the bald head of our mailman. This delighted me, especially when the mail man gave the bird the finger.
I did not neglect the Starlings. I found out they came, like many immigrants to New York city first and spread quickly across the country, muscling in on other cavity nesting birds, giving Purple Martens and Blue Birds and Baltimore orioles a rough time. They were urban birds—neighborhood. They made wolf whistles and fart noises from the trees and telephone wires. They turned spotted at certain times of year, and the old Silver Maples with their holes made perfect housing. The Sparrows lived in the forsythia and Azealia and Hydrangea bushes favored by the old Italian, Irish and Polish ladies. There would be hundreds of Sparrows making a great din when a squirrel or a cat decided to wander by.
It was only years later that I realized the native birds had not so much vanished as high tailed it to the waste places down by the Pennsylvania rail road where milk weed and flea bane, Queen Anne’s lace and black berry briars made for the sort of messy habitat humans disliked and Golden finches, Purple finches, Cat Birds, Tanagers and warblers loved. I found out that certain birds flourished in the geometric, weed free zones we had created—birds who had lived off our garbage and commerce and lawns for centuries ( I should not forget the robin). But there was a hidden world down by the tracks, in old abandoned lots, in rotting houses and factories where you stood a decent chance of seeing something different. In one patch of trees, a small quarter acre of wood lot, I stood one evening and heard a wood thrush singing. I was a strange child. It thrilled me to the bone, the way being in love or, later, hearing Bach, came close to doing.
I always wanted to write a book of poems about birds, and finally, after getting sick of my own political rants, and being sixty years old, being of an age when someone from the neighborhood can finally admit he loves birds and pink shirts I started writing these poems.
I wanted the book to be in the tradition of the WPA art works, with great paintings to go with them. Jaimee DeAngelo, an artist who did two of my book covers (Painting the Christmas Trees and The Plumber’s Apprentice) graciously accepted my invitation to collaborate. I love her art work far more than my poems, though I think I did right by the birds. Her art brings me back to a time when I just stared out the window and stood only at the threshold of language—a time before I mentioned I didn’t like Cauliflower. I’ve learned to like cauliflower. I’m heading back to a deeper silence, but before I do, I get to indulge this wish. Say I’m for the birds. It’s true.
Joe Weil—more or less
Great Snowy Egret
I first saw an egret
48 years ago,
perched on an orange
jutting out of the Rahway river
at low tide–
Surrounded by mud flats,
various bits of flora and fauna:
pickerel weed, cat tails, a musk rat
who dove into whatever true water
could be had at ebb tide and disappeared
The Egret stood glowingly white as if
auditioning for someone’s vision quest.
We were passing by in my father’s
junker ford, the one with
the hole in the passenger side floor–
on a bridge that was metal then
and sometimes rose to let a
small trash barge through, but always sang
with a low hum deep into my crotch.
as we traversed it:
The bridge was steel mesh,
the crate was mesh,
even the Egret seemed somehow
meshed, full of tiny holes,.
the way things look when
out of focus– as if,
had I got close enough, he would have
merely a series of white
paint splatters– dots and downward plumes
There was an accident up ahead so
we were stuck there for
20 minutes and for 20 minutes I kept my
mouth shut, fascinated by this bird while
my father cursed the gods and
my mother chided
I was watching the Egret–
its stillness mostly, how
calmly and with what dignified aplomb
it perched on that orange crate
its reflection wavering in the dirty water..
It did not budge until
some sort of opportunity
for lunch presented itself:
It saw an eel, a small one, but with one
lightning stroke, like the signature of lightning
its long pointed
beak, its yellow spear
Caught the writhing up and chucked it
down that long gullet, a quivering
And then? Back to standing still, so still
amid the tires, and beer cans
and the half buried wheel
of a child’s bike. I thought the monks were not
even gifted amateurs,–
no Buddha or middle class champion of
stillness and silence had ever come close
to this bird, even handicapped as it was
by grid lock
and bridge hum, and a 12 year old kid
off to visit his brain damaged brother,
my crew cut bristling in the heat.
I watched while my father cursed and
my mother said: Rocky, Rocky,
for chrissakes, be civil
and the day dragged on. And perhaps in my
I had become as still as that Egret which
for years now has traveled with me–
my parents long dead, that Ford long
turned into a compact bit of crushed steel.
If I close my eyes I can still see him,
at low tide, on that filthy river.
The sun lost to its own heat haze–
a blurred disk, the whole world
mesh– filled with a million holes
a million traffic accidents.
And the Egret poised in its midst
waiting, like the Seraph of God
to thrust forth its golden spear.
On fourth of July, alone in my kitchen and the sound of distant fireworks. I drink cheap Merlot, watch the dark break and enter through the windows. I am all over the internet but would rather be all over someone else: a tangent. A tanager. Today, by the river I saw a Scarlett Tanager. Had only seen them in bird books before, and for a minute all doom lifted. My mood is so easily healed, and then so easily thrashed back against the shoal of its wounding: rocks, jetties. If there were a sea I would calm it with the palm of my hand, and walk across the waves.
But there is no sea
only its sound inside me.
Part the red Merlot! Open the wounds!
Every Easter we would watch Moses and the Ten Commandments, and the sea was Jello I heard. They did that effect with Jello. Oh me, Oh my… the sigh of an ancient night breaking and entering through my windows.
There is no sea, though I might wish one into being—a red sea, like the
We open. We close. A series of bivalves, of binaries. Zeros and ones painting the ceiling!
She once laughed because the sound of the word computer turned her on. Odd coordinates of language and sky.
I would kill to be the sound of someone’s thoughts, the color of their dreams. Part one. Part two.
It is the fourth, and the sound of the fireworks makes me think of Beethoven composing as the French approached the city of Vienna, and he crossing out the name of Napoleon from the Eroica.
Do you bury your dead, Mr. Weil, or do you set them off as fireworks?
The Scarlett tanager was in the thickets by the river. I thought it was a cardinal at first, or some other red bird, and my eyes finally admitted it was a tanager. The first of my life, and maybe the last.
I draw the sun reversed: things at dusk. The glow of what has already faded. Its sweet aftermath.
My Aunt Mary died on a day I was supposed to read at Yale, and I was heading back to Binghamton to hand in the grades: ninety miles an hour and tears. And I was supposed to go with a beautiful Polish woman from my church. All the way to Yale! And I thought how I would give anything to be in the living room late at night watching re-runs of Frazier, my aunt wheezing gently on the sofa, me on the floor, my head cradled in my arms. And Yale did not seem very important—
Oh but this bird? It may save my life, and if not my life, then some small part of me that is gone forever—
the sound. What sound does red make? It is color, and frequency, and it must have a sound.
I think of a young woman with browned arms playing a ukulele. It is not very lyrical, or like a Scarlett tanager. I think of her often. Could she be my death? She is often morose just to try something different. No emotion has dropped like a mask to permanently fit her soft angelic face. She is singing: “There is a sea, whether you believe it or not. There is a sea Mr. Weil, Mr. Joe, my Joseph. I cannot be the sea. I can be the young girl playing the ukulele! In the sun dress, light splashes. Her fingernail polish is bright, Easter-egg blue.
But she is the sea, too, and the Scarlett tanager, and the sound of the distant fireworks. She is Beethoven crossing out the name of the liberator turned tyrant.
I must claim my death. It is very likely a while from now—perhaps while I am down by the river. And it is dusk. And it is more than dusk. And I am scratchy, and morose. And I feel no one feeling me.
Interview with Jaimie DeAngelo
1.You have degrees in art and in urban planning, a combination I find full of possibilities. What do you feel each discipline extends to the other in terms of what you want to do both as an artist and activist?
In order to answer this, I really have to credit a the people at the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space, which is a neighborhood history museum and anarchist-style collective in the lower east side in Manhattan. And your readers should check them out. I met these folks in 2013, during a summer when I was in between jobs and lucky to have some free time. The people in this neighborhood pitched in to recover this building and several others in the 70s after the city and private entities essentially disinvested in the area. Some of the local historians and activities that do shows here were part of the Tompkins Square Park riots or were actively involved in squatting, rehabbing, making community gardens, etc. While I volunteered there, they had European anarchists visiting to check out the site, which is also a famous punk squat, and they were very involved in Occupy, in the post Sandy cleanup effort, etc.
I think what I saw there is what planning, especially small scale neighborhood planning, has to offer the arts and vice versa. People in the community produced art for each other, to advocate for the neighborhood, to draw attention to huge problems, like the drug epidemic. There was a great interplay between modifications to the built environment, and the direct needs of neighbors in that space. And it felt like a joyful space too. So it was a big lesson in what art can mean to a community, if it is the tip of the spear in terms of how an organized group of people articulate their values to themselves and each other, and empower themselves. Planning at its best involves asking hard questions about what the future will be. This is where activism lives, too. Art comes in and ties them together, creates fun where it might be very hard to have fun otherwise, to allow people to be authentically present.
2. When I first knew you, you were a student at Boston College in the North East. It seems you’ve moved around a bit. What is it that you drew you to the Texas area , especially around Dallas?
When I finished from my first graduate program in 2010, with an art degree, it was right in the middle of the recession, and I really needed a job. And Texas throughout the recession still had a booming economy, not always for the right reasons, but the money was there. A boyfriend at the time wanted to move to Texas for school. I thought, sure, let’s go. In Austin I was able to get work with a little non-profit as a science book illustrator, and then teach art, and finally to go back to school to get a planning degree and work for the city.
So Texas is booming. Texas cities have room to grow and housing is still cheap, and air conditioning in the Sunbelt means we can stand to be here in the summer. It really is kind of like, yee-haw. But there is a dark underbelly to all this growth, which is that it is happening too fast, and without a tight plan. The state government has some awful people, and Texas sense some terrible representatives to Congress. That being said, I planned to leave and at one point moved away, but came back. I’ve met wonderful people in the Austin community and in Fort Worth where I live now. Texans are upbeat. They are optimistic. They want to make a deal with you. They are hyper local. They value their independence. And I think Beto showed the country that there are many lovely Texas people who are enthusiastically Texan but also want better wages, to end racism and sexism, to deal with police violence, and to address inequality and climate change. So that disrupts some stereotypes and hopefully energized the rest of the country a little. Austin and the city I now live in, Fort Worth, both went for Beto.
As to why I’m in the DFW area now: I came to work for the city, to join this art collective, and to try out a different place. DFW is the size of Connecticut. It has tons of museums and shows and may different types of people. It has a respectable but not perfect train system. And it has tons of problems, with environmental injustice, with an income gap, with protections for workers. But I feel equipped to have conversations here about how we can make it better. After a couple of years in Texas, you learn how to talk to people.
3. You are part of an artist’s co-op and it has a great mission statement and, from what I’ve seen some wonderful artists– but not just confined to visual arts. Tell me something about it.
I like this question a lot. I think it has a couple parts to it. So the group is the Kiriyo Cooperative. Kiriyo is a Yoruba word for wanderer. The historian Paul Gilroy in his book the Black Atlantic describes African Diaspora people as the cosmopolitan wanderers of the Atlantic world, sharing culture and religion around its ring. Most of the people in the house identify as black or African or African Diasporan (to be clear though, that is not me). The house is in a historically black neighborhood, down the street from a neighborhood-maintained Juneteenth museum. And the goal is to make sure that no matter who the clients are or who artists are that are passing through, that they understand this space as committed to preserving and amplifying black culture and being in and a part of that community. The house is about this particular narrative and history and trying to understand America’s contemporary relationship to its black history in the south. People who want to know more about it should hop on the website. I think all the members have personal pages with more info about their art. Raziq is a filmmaker, Myron is a hiphop artist and audio engineer, Jourdan is a hiphop artist and audio engineer and graphic designer, and Kasha is a science illustrator and tattoo artist. Right now we are still figuring out how to work collaboratively across media. The goal is to hopefully support everyone in their personal endeavors, while doing a few shared projects together.
4. How do you think the arts can help redefine living spaces, not just for the artists but for the neighborhoods and communities surrounding them? I think of a rock thrown into a lake– or a jar placed in Tennessee as Stevens wrote. How do you see hoped for change via this community, and how do you feel about those unpredictable effects. Do they excite you, frighten you, or both.
To me I think it is about possibilities for agency. My dad grew up in foster care and then in a housing project and his family had little to no control over or choice in their living environment. So he always loved art because he could do a little something himself and it had a huge effect on his perception of his environment, and what is possible, and really communicated that to me. Just to be able to transform a space with your creative time and energy, and especially to share that energy with others–to make something beautiful when the world tells you that you are ugly, and only deserve to live ugly places, to me that represents a huge act of rebellion. It also opens up the possibility of shaping what beauty is. The psychologist Paul Bloom says that attraction to objects is partly a function of the story behind them–this is something one of my favorite art historians, Neil MacGregor of the British Museum, also says too. The story becomes the object, and vice versa. Objects become totems for desirable experiences we want to call into being in the world. And what that says to me is that there are no universal standards of beauty, just agree-upon, cultivated standards that represent shared values between collections of individuals. They are changeable. When you set your own standards with the work that you do, you not only not only refuse to participate in aesthetic systems that are repressive (colorism, for example) but you build an understanding of beauty that is on your terms. And then people can’t devalue you or touch you, because they have nothing to offer you. Art offers dignity, and agency, in that way.
So, to take it back to spaces–whether those spaces are digital, abstract spaces, or a physical spaces–the story of coming together and shaping a place has the potential to radiate out to the block, the neighborhood. So the hope is that there is also a component that is very concrete, in terms of outreach. Right now the collective is teaching art and podcast classes at an elementary school. And the next project is learning how to compost properly and get the garden up to speed, the way a lot of groups are doing in Baltimore and Detroit. The previous owner used to have a community garden here and the people from the neighborhood miss it, and have asked when we are going to get it back in gear. A long term dream is to run a tiny library out of the front office space. Ultimately we want the artists to be a resource for small businesses and area non profits that need design support, and the house to be a community center. So yes, I see the possibility for an effect, a positive one if it goes well, but also a potentially a negative one and loss of trust if we fail at this. It is hard. How do you support everyone’s independent ambitions to ‘make it’ but still present a unified vision of what the Co-Operative has to offer, and also be sensitive to the neighborhood? How do you find money to rehab a space when everyone is bootstrapping it as it is? So we will keep going forward until the wheels fall off, as they say. But I’m optimistic.
5. Finally, ok: how have you enjoyed doing these bird pics? I loved writing the poems and I’ve been really excited by the art work you’ve made. How do you approach a poem visually?
Yeah, I love doing the bird drawings. It’s a great bridge for the two different types of work I’m doing, in the sense that I’m getting to play around with colors and textures and different types of formal elements to articulate some specific ideas about how environments and space are changing in real time. I think a lot about urbanization, habitat fragmentation and the mass extinction event we are in the middle of, and the poems really illustrate this. The birds are really liminal creatures, existing in these transitional spaces. Some birds like the english house sparrow, which you describe essentially as a plucky trash bird, will survive and blend in and keep going, much the way cockroaches and raccoons do, in an urban environment. Some like the egret seem very fragile, or like the northern flicker, just grossy out of place, and the way you depict them is a bit tragic, and speaks to what might be lost soon. Seeing the birds, memories of the birds in time, this personalizes the changes in ecology that we are all becoming accustomed to but can’t always put our fingers on.
So my process for doing these images so far is that I start by googling pictures of the bird like crazy. I’m looking for a few key things that define the bird’s silhouette, whether it is the beak shape or the crest or markings. I’ve noticed John James Audubon’s drawings have been really helpful in this regard, because he always emphasizes these elements and was a great observer of bird attitude. Next I look for images and textures that define the feel of the environment. Is it concrete, wood, metal, or something else? Finally, I think about composition and framing, and try to use those elements to tell the story that I’m seeing. In the case of the sparrow page, I really felt like the image of the target came through in strong way, and that these birds were trying to hide out of the line of fire. So the image is organized around the target (which reminded me a bit of medieval images of the circular zodiac and the labors, as well as Jaspers Johns’ targets. That probably sounds grandiose, and I don’t expect that anyone looking at that would see anything other than birds and colors). I then kind of try to weave the shape of the bird into the space by using textures layered under and over the silhouette. Really I’m just aiming for images that look like if Charles Demuth was really into macrame and collage and painted birds instead of buildings. I’m still feeling it out.