On the Use of Figures
We're not reviewing Chelsea Biondolillo's The Skinned Bird because it has diagrams, though as you'd imagine, diagrams are part of the appeal to the editors and readers of this journals. It's refreshing to see a book so wholeheartedly incorporating scientific imagery and photography, and to such good effect.
In fact Biondolillo's book of essays is an adventure in varieties of image-text interaction, and succeeds in most of them. It offers a variety of figures to consider, including diagrams of:
- the migratory patterns of Chelsea Biondolillo
- the anatomy of a thundercloud
- Migratory Orientation in the Indigo Bunting, Passerina canyea. Part II: Mechanism of Celestial Orientation
and photographs (all the photographs are Biondolillo's) of
- pinned birds
- a small crab
- a selection of trout lures
- what looks like burst milkweed pods but we could be wrong
- blackbird against a dark sky
- a bunch of pinned borer beetles
- the edge of a pool
- a water glass in a restaurant or a bar
- a bunch of angles of her wedding band tattoo from a former marriage.
Biondolillo knows what scientists know: that there is pleasure in examination. Giving us the images (rather than, say, descriptions of them) allows us to play the same role that the I does in looking at them, trying to understand them, reading them as sources of knowledge and insight and as explanations of animal behaviors and the natural world.
Including the images—and not just in an illustrative capacity, which would remove our obligation to interpret the images—puts us as readers into the role of the I, since we're doing what the I does just as the I is doing it.
This pulls us closer to the I than we were before. That's one of the essayist's best moves: look out and we look out with you. Then when you look in we're already with you, looking in. In essay—and memoir, for this is also a memoir in fragments—the self is an instrument, not just a subject. So when Biondolillo feeds materials to the instrument, she feeds it to us, and we become closer to the instrument.
In The Skinned Bird, we're also asked to do some significant interpretive work in connecting the text to the images, which is mostly pleasurable, even as we're occasionally not sure what exactly we're meant to do.
We understand what we're to do with a diagram of a thundercloud from an old World Book Encyclopedia, for instance, that pairs with a description of the Arizona monsoon rains. Those of us of the age of the hardbound encyclopedias certainly know how to read an explanatory image like this.
Some tasks are harder: What are we do do with the shells on black backgrounds that obscure whole pages of text?
A later essay, "Enskyment," offers a different task, pairing short poetic text sections ("horned lark," for instance) with images that correspond to the text closely to not-apparently-at-all. The image opposite "horned lark" looks (at least to the untrained and nonbirdy eye) like an image of horned larks—at least they're birds, dead birds. But the next text/image pair is harder to parse: the image opposite "brown rat" certainly isn't a brown rat: it's a ruin of a house—maybe the house mentioned in the text. The following one attached to "shore crab" would seem to be a little crab. Is it a shore crab? I dunno. The next, "the dogs," which is about actual dogs, corresponds to an image of ceramic dog figurines (I think). This is meant to be funny, I think: it reads that way anyhow. Laughing at the jokle and then running into a friend's cruel killing of a domestic cat in "domestic cat" in the next spread felt like a manifestation of a little violence. That kind of emotional whiplash made me a little nauseous, to be honest, which is an unusual and powerful effect, if one I wouldn't care to repeat. Then we're thrown into "rainbow trout" paired with an image of fishing lures, and "box turtle" with the edge of a swimming pool. Each of these pairs invites us to do a different task, typically one that's way different than reading an explanatory diagram.
On the Use of Minor Mystery
Some of the images pose questions, particularly the unlabeled ones that act as epigraphs to each of the book's three sections:
It's not obvious what these images are, even, when we first encounter them. The mystery is satisfyingly resolved in the last section, and is a good use of a minor mystery in the book (and a different mode of text-image interaction).
On the Use of Major Mystery
One of the essays, "The Story You Never Tell," manifests a larger mystery very effectively. It consists of 15 pages of what we assume is a narrative essay, almost entirely obscured by striking photographs of shells on black backgrounds:
You can read the first and last lines of each page, and maybe if you really tried you could assemble some sense of the story by the partial bits of words. But it's impossible to "read," at least in the way we read the other essays, and by being unreadable it really delivers on its promise, even as it may frustrate some readers. That's glorious and rare: to follow through so completely on an erasure so that the original text really cannot be read, especially when the original is of an intensely personal nature.
The essayist's desire must have been to manifest the obscuring gesture in the essay but to allow the obsucred story to become still legible anyhow. That desire is palpable, and in the context of a collection rich in personal detail and revelation, in which few punches seem to be pulled, this essay seems like it must be even more intensely personal.
On the Employment of Animals
As you might imagine of a book with a skinned bird in its title, animals do not fare well in this collection, except for Biondolillo, our protagonist, who's certainly one of them: I think she's the only one that survives. The rest die (but then we all do). Some of the dead animals, birds mostly, become explicit objects of study.
Birds are certainly one of the self-conscious motifs of the book. In a later essay, "Notes Toward a Partial Definition of Home," we finally understand what those epigraph images are, and from there this essay turns even more explicitly to the natural world as a way of explaining the personal world:
Birds have their own ideas about what makes a marriage successful or useful. Song birds, for example, are rarely monogamous for more than a single season.
Well, it's more complicated than that: the natural world isn't just here to explain the personal world. It's not a simple metaphor, or an exact reflection. By this point the dissolution of Biondolillo's marriage has become one of the central things that we've pinned and dissected, so it's hard not to make the connection, but we're cautioned not to get too exact about it:
I'm not trying to say I'm anything like a song bird. I'm not trying to say anything about the institution of marriage, or my disposition for it. I'm trying to say that sometimes it's easier to describe one's arc far from the heart of things.
There we go: this is an excellent distillation of the work of the essay: the self reveals itself (it even manifests itself) in looking outward. When we look out at a subject of sufficient interest, we project some aspect of our interiors and might see ourselves anew.
The work of art isn't a mirror, and it isn't a lamp: the self's the lamp, illuminating whatever it illuminates with some aspect of itself. Illumination is a projection of light—and also of color and of other manifestations of radiation, only a very small portion of which is visible to humans.
One wonders just how much we can see of the light we project when we illuminate something by looking at it.
We only figured out a decade or so ago how impoverished our human vision is by comparison, say, with birds. [AM]