Mistaken for Song by Tara Bray
Don’t judge a book by its cover. So suggests the cover of Mistaken for Song, the first full-length collection of poems by Tara Bray. Aside from its slightly disquieting flat, schematized talons, there is little in the image of the bird at left to prepare us for our surprise when we turn the book over and learn the painting’s title: “Anatomy of a Dead Bird II.” Although this artwork is not by the poet (the artist’s name is Joel Sager), the discrepancy it creates between appearance and eventual knowledge is characteristic of Bray’s work, which consistently directs the reader to inner dimensions of thought and feeling in excess of outward circumstance.
For Bray, the most formative inner experience is the memory of an early family tragedy. This event is obliquely referenced in several poems, especially in the first of the book’s four sections. While the first section is not uniformly successful -- some entries never rise significantly above anecdote, and suffer by contrast with its strongest poems -- it serves the important thematic purpose of contextualizing the later sections, which rarely mention the source of their unease. As a result, instead of being “mistaken for song,” the later poems about bird-watching and other encounters with nature visibly arise from a deep and specific need for connection.
Such a thematic arrangement makes the book’s title sound like a warning against “mistaken” assumptions about its author’s subjectivity. When the same phrase occurs in context, however, in the poem “The birds are making me” from the book’s final section, the emphasis is different. This time, what is being protected is the objective reality that the speaker encounters. When Bray writes of “flecked notes / mistaken for song,” “song” connotes order and meaningfulness, with the implication that these human criteria should not be applied unthinkingly to the birds’ individual “notes.” There is an evident tension between this warning and that of the book’s title, pitting the speaker’s desired connection with nature against nature’s essential strangeness. This essential problem is what motivates the book’s poetic efforts.
The first sign of Bray’s distinctive approach to this problem comes in the first poem in the volume, “Carolina Chickadees.” At its outset, the birds appear familiar: their actions are “shenanigans,” their chirpings “songs.” Something changes, though, as they return repeatedly to the feeder “until the spare appetite / we assigned to their tiny beaks / seems another sham believed into simile.” Ordinarily, a “sham” means a likeness masquerading as sameness, whereas a “simile” merely likens without any further claim. In a certain sense, every sham is a simile once exposed. And yet, Bray states the opposite: the simile was a sham. Because the likeness between the birds’ appetite and the size of their beaks was only predicted, rather than actual, it is hard to see how she could have mistaken it for sameness. But did her prediction have any other basis than the assumption of predictability? Such an assumption could well be described as resulting from a sham. Although the situation seemed explainable in terms of likeness or simile, it was not in fact. Once this error became belief, the “we” of the poem put out too little seed.
This might sound like a conventional warning against approaching nature with too many preconceptions, but Bray’s presentation is subtler. After all, the lesson about the unreliability of simile is only learned because it “seems another” such instance -- that is to say, because the speaker can establish a higher-order simile that likens this moment of surprise to earlier such moments. Far from rejecting thinking through likenesses, Bray has demonstrated its necessity, though with the crucial suggestion that the only reliable likeness is from the vantage of hindsight. For another poet, such skepticism might be a hindrance, but for Bray it is liberating, freeing her imagination to range all the more widely in the awareness that its assertions are provisional. Although she would describe it differently, Bray’s insight gives rise to an almost scientific process of hypothesis, experimentation, and integration of new knowledge. So suggest these lines from the poem “The birds are making me,” directly following the speaker’s remark on the “notes / mistaken for song”:
When you realize you’ve not
once touched your maker,
each act of progress is a mantra
and a trauma.
The very possibility of “progress” requires both repetition and separation, “mantra” and “trauma.” Thus, even though the immediate result of this realization is a sense of distance -- “The bird / is not a symbol,” she writes, with an echo of Wallace Stevens -- it is just as quickly transcended by the next step, which finds her approaching the birds again, but with a newly ironic understanding: “still I pretend we share the smallest doses / of quiet and disbelief.” And yet, this moment from the book’s final section merely renders explicit the arc already described by the first poem in the collection, when the speaker of “Carolina Chickadees” ended by “plead[ing]” with the birds to “beat / upon my ear, chatter, tease me, meek cheek-fires I want to swallow whole.”
The main direction of Bray’s progress is towards an understanding of nature that is primarily tactile and sensory. Taste is the center around which the world of the poems takes form, such that, through synaesthesia, even abstractions can take on a flavor -- like the “purple taste of lament” or the titmouse “tart with grace.” This is ultimately because of taste’s connection with eating, which, of all tactile encounters, comes closest to integration. Relying on the principle that you are what you eat, the poet suggests that to consume the world is also, paradoxically, to be consumed by it. This movement is especially evident in the poem “To feel foreign I eat an avocado,” both in its title and in its imaginative transformation of the speaker’s kitchen into a desert scene in which “I am swallowed, memorized.” A similar ambiguity between interior and exterior pervades “Rapture in the Oachitas,” the book’s most extravagant expression of unity between these two worlds, and one of its strongest poems.
Bray’s thematic interest in the tactile carries over into her language, which brings out the sensory texture of words through alliteration and the jumble of plosive consonants. Syntactically, her frequent preference for noun-clauses over sentences creates a similar percussiveness, though she can also build a poem out of a hailstorm of verbs, as in the short-lined sexy shimmy of “I will take you to the desert.” Several successful poems in the book’s second and fourth sections use extremely long lines as an alternative template for eclecticism. Between these two extremes, her middle style occasionally falters, with essentially decorative elements unable to enliven their conventional unfolding. That said, perhaps the most powerful poem in the volume, “How My Mother Died,” emerges out of plainsong, using a series of striking metaphors just the far side of colloquialism to create a convincing address to “Jesus of the ordinary prayer.” If the weaker poems in the book come off as reports, this and others like it read as visceral transcripts of feeling. As is common with first collections, Mistaken for Song is uneven, but it often enough makes up for it in guts.
Mistaken for Song by Tara Bray