The Garden of Improbable Birds by Roy Seeger. Gribble Press, 2007. Review by Meghan Brinson.
If you enjoyed the tense domestic of “Heirlooms,” by Seeger in Hayden's Ferry Review #42, then you should check out this chapbook.
While the table of contents of Roy Seeger’s The Garden of Improbable Birds might read like a biology text, The Garden of Improbable Birds isn’t just another assortment of pretty yet unfulfilling nature poems. Flora and fauna form a landscape, often ironic, where the relationships that family members have with each other create larger legacies. Seeger’s chapbook, contrasting its pastoral, lyrical images with projections of pop icons, is a formally risky, emotionally successful collection.
Seeger tackles an ambitious experiment in form with the academic practice of footnotes. Any reader of Norton’s anthologies knows the dangers of his attempt: he risks splitting the reader’s attention between important emotional moments and trivia, or draining energy out of poems by breaking up the natural momentum of lines and stanzas. Yet Seeger’s footnotes, at their best, offer a kind of secondary text to the poems, literally creating miniature poems in the space between the lines. I suggest reading the poems without footnotes once, since these interjections do not add anything essential to the first reading. But on second reading of “Cavern,” for example, footnotes are enjoyable additions: the first offers a landscape vignette, the other a ghostly Greek chorus.
Seeger’s chapbook manages to do what many whole collections do not--he pursues a topic through a period of reflection and growth and takes it to a satisfying, convincing conclusion—in thirty three pages. The book’s focus on family issues, particularly the suburban mother and contrastingly rural father, and the hypothetically sheltered future children captures a particular moment in adult life when the speaker reflects back into childhood to project himself into the future he is considering of his own fatherhood.
It’s in these poems that the chapbook particularly shines, contemplating the father of the speaker’s necessary violence and (perhaps) unnecessary judgment in “The Wolfman’s Barber,” when the rare-beef-eating father trims his wolf-son’s hair:
“and I learned to avoid my father// When he searched each room in his crusade/ to civilize me. I learned not to answer//when he called.
Alternatively, the speaker considers what he would pass on to his own children in “Whenever I dance I imitate John Travolta,” an energetic lyric:
“This is nothing/ I’d ever teach my children, nothing/ they couldn’t learn themselves:// plant the toe and twist the leg;/ point to the sky, point to the ground;/ don’t look where you are pointing.
Here for ordering information on this chapbook. Since his publication in HFR, Seeger won the 2008 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award. His book The Boy Whose Hands Were Birds, is available at this website.