The crow remembers your face
Using Bricks to Build a Whisper
An interview with poet Jessica Goodfellow by poet Avra Wing
The crow represents the intelligence of the natural world, so often overlooked by humans in thrall of our own cleverness. The crows observe the cruelty and carelessness of the decisions made by humans, self-appointed stewards of the earth, taking little stock of the intelligence and necessity of other species, of the ecological systems that have evolved without (and sometimes with) our interference. There’s a wantonness to human cruelty that’s absent from the ruthlessness that necessarily exists in nature. The crow is in this poem both as a contrast to human cruelty / intelligence (intertwined as they are) and as a witness to it.
Crows are ubiquitous in my neighborhood at the foot of a mountain. We can often see hundreds of crows flying together. Occasionally I look out the window, and there’s a crow looking in. Then my sons told me that, in Tokyo, people use yellow trash bags because crows have difficulty seeing yellow (crows tearing apart trash bags set at the curb is a huge problem in Japan). Shortly after that I listened to a podcast about how intelligent crows are—something I’d understood from experience, but the details of which still amazed me—and I began writing this poem. So I started with crows in particular, rather than starting with a big idea and searching for a symbol—inductive rather than deductive reasoning.
The hard ‘c’ of the caws (I can actually hear crows outside my window now as I write this) I tried to echo in my word choices, and it’s fortuitous for the tone of this piece that crows make such a harsh sound. The blackness of crows likewise echoes the dire ecological situation resulting from our insistence on human primacy. The large wingspans, the morose faces, the ominously watchful eyes of the crow—all these things add to the tension, to the sense that the intelligence of the earth is aware of the suffering we have wrought upon it.
How did you decide on the form of the poem?
The form of this poem came from the natural breaks in speech that I wanted to emphasize with line breaks. Each line lasts one long breath when spoken aloud, and breaks in a logical place. In many other of my poems I want more playful line breaks, but in this poem, there is enough play in the repetitive ‘c’ sounds, the internal rhyme, and the double meaning in the last two lines.
How do you see the interaction of science and language in your work?
The human mind naturally seeks categories and patterns. I’m drawn to precise words as tools to help make sense out of chaos. Science, and the language of science, attempts to collect, organize, explain, and transmit facts, but whatever it is that poetry attempts to do, it isn’t that. Poetry is about experience, or about language, but not about information. So using the language of math or science in poems is like using bricks to build a whisper. Words are imperfect for communicating what poetry wants to communicate, so why not use the most unsuitable words possible? Why not use cinder blocks to make nuance?
I’ve heard the poet Rick Barot say that “The poem is a kind of contained chaos.” He explained that there are sources of order and sources of disorder in a poem, counterbalancing one another. If you have only order, then you don’t have a poem, but an exposition. Likewise you can’t have only disorder. But if you have a lot of order, the poem can bear a lot of disorder. The order makes a kind of scaffolding on which to hang the disorder. For me, one way of providing that structure is through the disciplined language of logic, mathematics, and science.
How has living in Japan influenced your work?
In Japan, my status as an outsider is, most of the time, unforgettable, inescapable. If I do happen to forget it momentarily, there’s usually someone around who wants to impress it upon me again. That distance can be generative for art, for writing. But it’s lonely too—which can also be good for writing.
What was your initial reaction to seeing the motionpoem?
I don’t know what I was expecting, but I had to watch the movie two or three times before I could take it in, because its story line was so different from the poem. I was all the while captivated by the the textures in the imagery, the childlike yet knowing voice of the narrator, the mystery of the film, those actual crows (I had expected animation since I did not think real animals would be feasible) and that final striking image. Even now, though I’ve watched the film a dozen times, it remains mysterious to me, but that’s the genius of what Alex Hanson and Edward Chase Masterson have done—adding layers of mystery rather than in trying to explicate the poem. Because of their film, the poem has become a deeper, more moving experience, one that evokes a despair in me that I did not expect.