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Book Review: 'Come Late to the Love of Birds' by Sandra Kasturi

by Terry Trowbridge

Come Late to the Chthulucene Etc.

Sandra Kasturi’s 2012 book of poems Come Late to the Love of Birds continues to be timely a decade later. This review considers the weight of the poetry to be lateness in the title, rather than the love, or the arrival. Like the love of birds, this review comes late, but like a reader who opens a book a decade after publication, this review is better late than never.


The title poem, “Come Late to the Love of Birds” appears at the end of the book (Kasturi, 2012, 95), parallel to how the era of the avian is closing amidst the encroachment of the Anthropocene Era on every bird habitat. Coming to notice birds, to even love birds, to consider their care, either in 2012 or 2023, is much too late for our generation of humans to reasonably learn valuable lessons for the care and keeping-together of birds and humans. Bird activities no longer exercise controlling influence over biomes and habitats. Birds, like every species of life, now live at the pleasures, poisons, and postmodernism of Homo sapiens sapiens’ environmental proclivities.


Kasturi writes, “I’ve come late to the love of birds/For years they hid in my periphery” (Ibid.), and in doing so, echoes J.A. Baker’s lines, “I came late to the love of birds. For years I saw them only as a tremor at the edge of vision” but not necessarily with Baker’s exalted supernatural implications of the word “vision.” Baker and Kasturi both invoke mysticism, but now, as every habitat is dissolving by flood or by fire, mysticism is a secondary consideration. Kasturi’s poems are valuable in 2023 because their literal surface meanings are often our collective, shared experience. The climate crisis has demystified this book’s imagery of the supernatural.


In fact, birds cannot be peripheral to human consciousness; that is impossible. Birds used to be everywhere and humans are the latecomers to the Earth’s ecology. Until the Modern Era’s European Industrial Revolution, there was no periphery to limit the power of birds over the human environment. Nowadays, humans must make prolonged efforts to limit the growth of bird communities that do not serve human capitalism (like blue herons and barn swallows), while nurturing a profusion of industrial bird warehousing for those who do serve capitalism (like chickens and the enormous world-bespotting garbage craters filled with chicken bones). Kasturi is borrowing Baker’s literary envisioning, in order to direct the reader to a non-capitalist, therefore broadly unfamiliar, frame of reference.


Her title poem wrestles with the reality that Kasturi’s cultural education and her society created peripheries that she participated in for decades, socially constructing that we all act as though under the spell of a specific blindness to the various activities of birds. Now, in 2023, Kasturi’s book is no longer one person’s meditation about their changing individual consciousness. (And, to be fair, it never could have actually been about that). Kasturi’s book is one of Canada’s 21st century exegeses about the tacitly capitalist gaze that constructs mass extinction for the benefit of corporate investors; even as Kasturi is obviously trying to reject the capitalist ideology that can be traced throughout Canadian society. Kasturi reconstructs her spatial ontology and her emotional vocabulary around the activities of her neighbouring bird species, bird families, individual birds, and even those faraway birds that appear in Audubon guides.


The “lateness” that she foregrounds as her own sociological and geographical epiphanies are important to all of us. We must learn how to be loving, sharing, and seek interspecies restorative justice. Kasturi is a necessary and important poet for the project that, two decades ago, Vandana Shiva called a resistance to biopiracy (Shiva, 2005); and that now Donna Haraway refers to as the Chthulucene Era where humans end industrial capitalism by “Making kin, not population” (Haraway, 2018); or perhaps humans seek restorative justice as part of the anti-capitalist Proletarocene because capitalism implodes itself (Citation). Readers of Kasturi will develop their vocabularies for interspecies reciprocity, observation, and planning. Kasturi’s poetry, generally being as short as a 4-inch by 5-inch page; is oriented to evoke distinct images, and conveying instants of emotional responses that are ideal for rethinking landscaping, housing, urban and exurban design. Learn to see the details of bird life, and readers who come late to that love can act to mitigate the climate challenges that local birds face.

Photo: Terry Trowbridge - Come Late to the Love of Birds cover
Photo: Terry Trowbridge

During the climate crisis, practical vocabulary can be useful but can also be uncertain. Extinction events are accelerating on all continents and in all local neighbourhoods. Readers who also follow journalism will find the book hanging on the Come Late part of the title rather than The Love of Birds part of the title. In the decades leading up to 2012, Kasturi may have originally been writing odes, paeans, or apologies to birds. Since their publication, Kasturi’s genre may have changed to poems of regret, remorse, and even eulogy for displaced species she no longer will see near her own home. The real-life Canadian spatial and biological contexts for Kasturi’s narrative voice have changed.


Come Late is divided into four sections: Hieroglyphs of Wind (16-29), Cannibals of Love (31-52), False Fossils (53-69), The Sorcerer at the Door (71-93). In those titles, readers of Canadian poetry might recognize echoes of previous thaumaturgical, occult observations of nature, by poets like Gwendolyn MacEwan (1972) and Susan Musgrave (2000). Kasturi is a fantasy and horror editor, and also writes horror fiction. Her personally idiomatic Goth style seamlessly weaves the Canadian arcane with empathetical themes found in the Neo-Pagan and Neo-Folk environmental justice movements.


Kasturi, who is clearly a progressive feminist spiritual thinker completely unlike Kasturi, UK and USA Neo-Pagan and Neo-Folk leaders (e.g.: the band Death in June), spent the years after Come Late was published abusing environmental justice movements by using their communities to radicalize and recruit for Fascist white power organizations and mobilize Alt-Right MAGA voters (Ross, 2017). Kasturi, in contrast, provides a language and creativity that denotes compassion, interspecies solidarity, interculturally and internationally constructive imagery. Kasturi’s poems might provide a cure for some readers who are drawn to the moods or motifs of Neo-Pagan or Neo-Folk communities but need redirection to a more constructively creative interior life. In other words, Kasturi’s book is worth sharing with people who are drawn to the co-opted styles of literary dark genres, and yet are able to be rescued from the bleakly MAGA Alt-Right rabbit hole that those genres now contain. At the least, Kasturi’s poetry helps rally those of us who are erstwhile progressive elder-Goths to reclaim our genre literature, literary conventions, and fashions.


Come Late is personal poetry, but readers in 2023 cannot unburden themselves of the social dimensions of Anthropocene extinction. Even though no single individual can claim responsibility or guilt for choosing the destruction of birds (Morton, 2019), humans own the extinctions happening everywhere. It has been almost two hundred years since Emile Durkheim alerted Europe and the Americas to the existence of social facts (Durkheim, 1982), and our mass extinction events are social facts as much as they are ecological. As groups, all of the cultures that can read Come Late are responsible for birds’ destruction. As groups, governments, non-profits, educational systems, sciences, faith-based NGOs, international law, have all attempted to address the social fact of anthropogenic extinctions. As groups, they have all failed. That is why, whatever Kasturi originally set out to write, in actuality she had no choice but to come late to the love of birds, their hieroglyphs, their cannibalism, their fossil metonymy, the mythopoetic cultural meanings of her doorway when a tiptoeing bird approaches.


Hieroglyphs of Wind

Hieroglyphs of Wind begins with a poem about the evolution of birds that recalls the Mesozoic Era and its extinctions. Kasturi writes a legendary history in which dinosaurs had precognition of the coming of humans, and evolved to be ever-present but unnoticeable to us. Kasturi contrasts inhumanly small creatures in small hidden places with the oversized human obsession with flight and ubiquitous colours; with the endless scrawls of human myths, deities, poets, in endless human desire to fly like birds, be colourful as birds. Birds themselves speak vocalizations with which Kasturi struggles. She alludes to being inspired to create various kinds of asemic writing. To continue in English free verse, she has to compare them in the form of poetry or myths, for which there are traditional polysemes and literary symbols.


The poem “Cleaning House” (23-24), uses puns about chickens to complain about the ordinary annoyances of chores, including “guitar-plucked, clucked” (as a kitchen sound effect for an oven door cluck is practically a Foley artist’s onomatopoeia), “clutching” and several phrases that perhaps only someone who has a chicken coop in their backyard can recognize (like my own family). As a human who has been followed around all day by four hens, I found this poem both delightful and serious.


The poem “One Red Thought” (25-27), about a red-tailed hawk juxtaposes suburban hawks with suburban statuary: icons like lawn gnomes and imported landscapes. The poem “Let the Night In” (28-29), describes a tryst that feels, at times, like being caught by a raptor. At other times, the romantic themes of an era of space travel becomes the focus, “He has been charmed by the fairy tale of physics in this century” (27). Kasturi reaffirms the inspirations of the Anthropocene while highlighting the utterly inhuman natures of birds herein.


Cannibals of Love

This section’s first poem “Origins of Species” (33-34), refers to Darwin’s book with its chapters about pigeons and other birds. Kasturi’s allusion to Darwin is that humans have, as a species, “come new” (33). Our species is young, even though she can draw on birds as ancient as the Jurassic for metaphors and metonymy. Human tropes compare to much older ways of life than humanity. From the imagery of secular Darwinism, Kasturi shifts to the spiritual with “Hagiography of Hummingbirds” (35-37). It is a poem comprised of a numerated list, that describes fanciful or impressive features of hummingbirds. She construes hummingbirds as superavian in the same sense that saints are superhuman.


“Speaking Crow” (38-39), is a poem that most clearly echoes other Canadian poets, like Gwendolyn MacEwen, Catharine Owen, or Liz Worth. Crows are here construed as Thoth-like linguists and magicians, although Kasturi references Odin’s ravens named Thought and Memory, “the shoulders of later gods” (38). “The Day I Ate Jupiter” (40), describes eating the planet in ways that echo Indigenous stories about crows and ravens that eat the Sun. Jupiter is a burning morsel that disintegrates the narrator. The poem “Poets and Other Birds of Prey” (41-42), compares poets to raptors. Kasturi retells the myth of Saturn swallowing his children with Goya-esque revelations of poetry’s gossiping or gorging powers.


“Moon and Muchness” compares the moon to candy. Kasturi undoes the legendary dying of her eating Jupiter with a playful Moon myth in a universe made of “moon-freckled boundless absurdity” (43). Kasturi goes on to recount another tragedy of eating in “Obese Mythologies” (44-45) with a parody of Icarus plunging because he was too fat for his wings. And, with the act of parody, Kasturi casts doubt on the veracity of all recounted stories, oral and written.


The poem “Let Us begin” (50-52) completes Kasturi’s cosmology by leaving the subject of eating the universe. She highlights the different experiences of mammalian birth and birth from an egg. The ironies she examines are the various ways that humans live their entire lives “in a walled garden” and behind gates they must open (52). Humans, she demonstrates, are born and then crawl inside the safety of variations on the theme of eggs. Birds do the opposite.


False Fossils

This section is a series of meditations on the meaning of skeletons, time, and spatial ontologies. At times, False Fossils is almost Hitchcockian. Kasturi refers to bones and chimerical characters like Baba Yaga’s chicken-legged hut. She recalls Rus folktales about children born in Autumn and alludes to migration, the ontologies of oncoming Winter that might shape a child differently than being born into the pathway of oncoming Spring.


She elaborates on seasonal places. The poem “Equinox” (58-59), combines JM Barrie’s girlish Wendy Bird and the liminal time on farms when crops begin to show their tips. “Murre and Murrelet” (61), retrieves the time and bones of museums, and how the space of a museum can define the people who frequent them. “Bird Logic” (62-63), uses some impossible circumstances to emphasize the dangers of a life lived in imaginary descriptions of places that we depend on for the materials of real life. Kasturi cautions us not to assume that humans are entitled to the predictable behaviour of birds. Nor, she cautions, are we entitled to the imaginary world being so durable that our dependencies can withstand our meddling with taken-for-granted sources of reality that we rely on others to maintain. “Be careful when birds are sleeping: sometimes they are dreaming the universe and you in it” (63). In a turn from the Hitchcockian to the Gaimanesque, she warns us to not disabuse a bird by waking them up, for the difference between the imagined and the real can be a shock.


The theme of “Bird Logic” extends in morbid ways to the poem “The Otherworld Awaits You” (68-69). Although Kasturi draws on examples of species alive and extinct, the nuances of her choices blend into the arbitrary. However, given the agency we have by the risk we take of meddling with the reality matrix of bird logic, maybe arbitrary examples are enough. Everything alive will die. All species will become extinct. How is important only because how implies when. Kasturi warns us this is even true of ideas. And often, “the death of wrongheaded ideas and ideology” (69), operates the under analogous systems as speciation and extinction. Sometimes ideas and ideologies metaphorically die because people, and their referents, physically die.


The Sorcerer at the Door

The word sorcerer has a plenitude of meanings as it wends throughout Canadian literature. Tracing the forms of sorcery and the conditions of animals, plants, and worlds ensorcelled is a lifetime experience for an author like Kasturi, making a career in the genres of fantasy and horror. Kasturi’s poems unite her literary, kitchen-witch cultural anthropology in the image of sorcery, wherein a sorcerer is a human mystic who has the power to create in themselves a few features a bird. Or, in an increasingly substantive mode, a sorcerer is an entity whose power is over the metaphors of bird logic and can transfigure the world by shifting those metaphors.

Kasturi’s poem “The Bloody Chamber” (73-74), introduces a Death figure as “the sorcerer at the door” (73). She evokes the dangers that come with being a human woman, “We tell ourselves that we have not seen the dismembered bodies of our sisters” and revitalizes the egg metaphors of “Let Us Begin” for the ironic pretense that women pretend to not be hyperaware of their vulnerabilities, “We tell ourselves that the key never fit, the egg remained clean, we were never touched by the sorcerer at the door” (Ibid.). Kasturi compares souls to eggs as well, “the sorcerer…has always been there with his basket…” In this image of the Easter basket and the collector of eggs, Kasturi casts Easter – the holiday – as a doorway that a psychopomp can step through. It is an image both postmodernly post-Christian as it is a seasonal Springtime balance of the pagan Eostre holiday opposite autumnal Samhain.


“The Bloody Chamber” echoes more matrilineal symbolism of transubstantiation and passing between worlds. She denies the afterlife its ability to tantalize women, who are eternally threatened while they live, “But no girl asked, even when tarred with honey and feathers…What lies still in that ultimate womb-room? Perhaps it’s just a bird. The beginnings of a bird, the idea of a bird hatched from a fairy tale.” Kasturi makes the allegories of birth and allegories of death interchangeable for women; for whom one is always casting a shadow over the other.


The poems continue with a thesis that through allegory, love escapes the threatening cycle. American poet e e cummings has a comparable image that love and death are two sides of the same coin. Kasturi suggests they can be unknotted. “Perhaps love need not be murder, the price of knowledge not death nor the dismemberment of siblings, nor the bloodied chamber, but the clean, unbroken ovoid of elliptical time” (74). She proposes humans abandon the locked rooms; perhaps by extension, abandon the egg metaphors both protective and delicate. “Let us go into memory and marriage without fear” (Ibid.).


The poem “Cryogenics” (75-76), recalls the twentieth century Techbro sleight-of-hand cryogenic technology that was supposed to freeze humans in ways that they could be reanimated in the future. In the twenty-first century, cryogenics enable all sorts of new experiences of biological time, but nothing that reverses the death of adult individuals. Kasturi’s poem is about freezing love and love’s gratifying moments. She suggests eating lovesicles or using them as cooking ingredients (75). In thawing and licking them, Kasturi invokes the comedy of sexual noises, “causing starlings to burst into the air in a flurry of confusion…surprising the widow-neighbour during her afternoon lie-down…” (75-76). The image of thawing love “causing starlings to burst into the air in a flurry of confusion” (75), also portrays reanimation mythology. Cryogenics, of course, being a way that capitalist policymakers and corporate leaders propose not to mitigate climate change, but to depend on private funding to select private sector, technological climate adaptations (Felli, 2021). Kasturi’s use of “love” is ironic in the face of actual cryogenics adaptation proposals in this decade; but a decade ago, when climate change mitigation was the public focus of policy, her poem could have been a sincere fantasy instead of an ironical one.


The poem “Regretful Orbits” (77) is the first strong, overt indication that in writing Come Late, Kasturi experienced feelings or visions of regret. She writes three allegories. Dead birds frozen by Winter cold thaw on city street pavements, “melted under the steam of the mid-town bus.” The human conspiracy of pavement and urban sprawl gutters birds under the peripheries of high-density settings.


The second allegory is “Pluto orbiting lonely round the year-end sun.” She attaches a convenient cliché of Winter deep-freezes to the image of Pluto, “denied status by fuzzy-bearded astronomers.” Kasturi highlights the way objects that occupy human-made peripheries like distance from our species-specific center. (Why should the Sun, and not, say, the Oort Cloud, be the definitive source of the solar system’s superstructure, anyhow? Are seasonal metaphors really that scientifically determinative)? Pluto is both far from the Sun, only very lately recorded during an era of blurry astronomy done by extrapolation, the last gravitationally consequential object discovered before instruments were improved to current standards. Pluto is also small compared to other orbiting bodies. All of these attributes are completely coincidental, and matter only to a very specific moment in human consciousness. And yet, the status of Pluto is a perfect analogy for the coincidences of the Anthropocene present, creating peripheries that are insignificant except in their overlapping coincidences of instrumentation (not physical reality) and the conference schedules of the instrumentalists (and not the timing of the physical universe).


“Regretful Orbits” presents a third periphery. The extinction of the European Bee-Eater because bees have depopulated, divested from its habitats. The Bee-Eater’s bees have moved to business-owned queens and hipster enclaves in European cities.


All three allegories are actual peripheries. They are all consciously chosen. In the case of Pluto, (planetary) status and (solar system) periphery, are organized by scientific publishing authorities and ratified by professional convention attendees; a model for authority over every periphery that is socially constructed at the edges of most people’s daily vision. In the case of bus-route bird corpses, the disbursement and disposal of birds is proposed, planned, and made policy. In the case of the Bee-Eater, the bees are saved but the reason for saving them excludes the bird that bees support, by extension, the entire food web; and a food web is just a different way of seeing or interpreting everything. Possibly, a food web is another expression of the predatory dangers of Kasturi’s bird logic.


The remining poems of The Sorcerer at the Door are all richly imaginative and conducive for inspired, visionary reading. They do not need further interpretation here. A savvy reader might nonetheless search them for signs of Kasturi’s optimism or pessimism about the role of birds in her cultural consciousness.


So What, for the Love of Birds

The more birds die, the fewer time humans will see them. The less humans observe birds in daily life, the less common will myths and allusions to birds be in our thoughts and conversations. Kasturi demonstrates that without birds, human cultures and humans’ interpretations of themselves would become inarticulate and alienating. We define ourselves in comparison with bird behaviour and in contrast with bird abilities. When birds go extinct, so will swathes of human cognition. Each species disappearance is the death of a vocalization and the end of a colour scheme. Every individual bird lost reduces our opportunities for metaphors, metonyms, ironies, omens, and symbols. In the Anthropocene Era, each bird that dies permanently limits our ability to think for ourselves or to speak to others.


Kasturi is not, of course, maudlin and remorseful; indeed, her love is true. Maybe her significant accomplishment with this collection of contemplative poems was giving us a repertoire with which to freely love what is going extinct, instead of merely drowning in a depressive fog.


Book Reviewed:

Kasturi, Sandra. (2012). Come Late to the Love of Birds. Barrie: Tightrope Books.


Purchase it here: Amazon


Works Cited

Durkheim, Emile. (1982). What is a Social Fact? The Rules of Sociological Method and Selected Texts on Sociology and its Method. Toronto: The Free Press, 50-59.


Felli, Romain. (2021). The Great Adaptation: Climate, Capitalism and Catastrophe. London: Verso.


Haraway, Donna. (2018). Making Kin in the Chthulucene: Reproducing Multispecies Justice. Clarke, Adele and Haraway, Donna. (Eds.). Making Kin Not Population. Chicago: Paradigm Press.


MacEwan, Gwendolyn. (1972). The Armies of the Moon. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada.


Morton, Timothy. (2019). Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People. London: Verso.


Musgrave, Susan. (2000). What the Small Day Cannot Hold: Collected Poems 1970-1985. Vancouver: Beach Holme Publishing.


Ross, Alexander Reid. (2017). Against the Fascist Creep. Edinburgh: AK Press.


Vandana, Shiva. (2005). Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace. Cambridge: South End Press.

 

About the Writer:

Terry Trowbridge is a Canadian living on Lake Ontario, a plum farmer, a sociolegal researcher, and a book reviewer. His poetry and essays have appeared in something like 100 different journals, zines, and chapbooks. His Erdős number is 5.

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