The Ghost of Birds by Eliot Weinberger
Reviewed by Cameron MacKenzie
FROM THE PUBLISHER: "The Ghosts of Birds offers thirty-five essays by Eliot Weinberger: the first section of the book continues his linked serial-essay An Elemental Thing, which pulls the reader into “a vortex for the entire universe” (Boston Review). Here, Weinberger chronicles a nineteenth-century journey down the Colorado River, records the dreams of people named Chang, and shares other factually verifiable discoveries that seem too fabulous to possibly be true. The second section collects Weinberger’s essays on a wide range of subjects—some of which have been published in Harper's, New York Review of Books, and London Review of Books—including his notorious review of George W. Bush’s memoir, Decision Points, and writings about Khubilai Khan, the I Ching, different versions of the Buddha, American Indophilia (“There is a line, however jagged, from pseudo-Hinduism to Malcolm X”), Herbert Read, and Charles Reznikoff."
- New Directions Publishing
The Roanoke Review's Cameron MacKenzie reviews The Ghost of Birds below:
In the midst of the ongoing media crush, of dire predictions and apocalyptic scenarios, I have been struggling to find a time for something other than the screen of my phone. Happy was I then to learn of a new publication from Eliot Weinberger, The Ghosts of Birds, in which Weinberger continues in the vein he nearly pioneered and certainly owns, that of the avant-garde essay. While this book might offer distraction from the tumultuous present, it immerses its reader into a wider scope of time that proves no less convulsive, ecstatic or ultimately mysterious.
I was introduced to Weinberger’s unique work through his previous collection, An Elemental Thing, a book I picked up in a used book store based on the cover alone. It had me in the palm of its hand from the first sentence: “In the Aztec Empire, every fifty-two years, once in an average lifetime, the world was on the verge of coming to an end.” Unwinding from there, An Elemental Thing delivers over a universe made suddenly strange—nearly unrecognizable—through little more than its strategically presented facts of vanished civilizations. The brief essay on Aztecs that begins the book goes on to dispassionately describe the rituals and ceremonies undertaken to ensure the continuation of the world, from the imprisoning of pregnant women in granaries to the decapitations of quails. Further in, the piece “Lacandons,” consists of a long list of dream interpretations according to the people of the eponymous title, a small tribe in Chiapas, Mexico. It is by turns whimsical:
“If you dream of a termite, you will see a jaguar.
If you dream of a jaguar, people are coming.
If the jaguar bites you, they are not people.”
“that which is certain in a dream won’t happen.”
The essay “Rhinoceros” is an erudite discussion of the creature itself, a record of its contact with various civilizations (“In December 1515, Dom Manuel demonstrated his piety by sending the rhinoceros as a gift to Pope Leo X”), and an elegy for the animal we have gradually hunted into extinction. It begins with four pages of description in native Hawaiian, taken, we are told, from the pages of the Ka Lama Hawai’i newspaper, Feburary 21, 1834: “O ka Elepani wale no ka mea i oi aku kona nui mamua o ke Laehaokela,” and so on. That essay—through its reportage, its lists, its bare presentation—uses the rhinoceros as a device, a mirror that the author moves back and forth through time and civilization in order to expose the reader less and less to the animal itself than to the myriad facets of humanity, its wide range of behavior, expectation, thought and even language. The danger with such an approach lies in the potential for an entropic expansion, a heat death of meaningless, exponential facticity; what begins to happen instead is a slow revelation of deeper meaning. “The Rhinoceros” is in effect the sketching of a silhouette of who we have been and still are, whether the manifestation of that figure be the court of Portuguese India or the islands of Sumatra. Alas, the portrait, especially sharp in “Rhinoceros” is far from flattering:
“The eighth rhinoceros [in Europe]…was sold to the Emperor of Germany, Francis II. Awaiting shipment across a war-torn Europe, rarely seen, it died a few months later, in a stable on Drury Lane.”
After listing the appalling numbers of wild rhinos in 1970 versus today (85% of world’s rhino population was killed in the fifteen years between 1970 and 1985), the essay closes with a few quotes from the “oldest known Buddhist text,” a sutra to the forelorn animal that urges its reader to do “no violence to living things, not even a single one of them; wander alone like a rhinoceros.”
The effect of this essay, an effect repeated at intervals throughout the book with varying topics and infinite, dazzling particulars, is to uncover a deep structure over which the particularities of time rush as though a waterfall of endless variation of a singular theme. In this way the book verges on the mystical, betraying as well a desire to take a place beside the other mystical works around which it circles: Incan star charts, ancient Chinese poetry, James Frazer, William Blake, Indic yoga, Native American folklore. And yet in both perspective and execution An Elemental Thing belongs to no other time than our own. Still, and endlessly turning around that stillness, An Elemental Thing aspires to be something, perhaps, to believe in. Having said that, Weinberger’s new collection, The Ghosts of Birds, is its echo.
The Ghosts of Birds consists of two principal sections; the first mirrors An Elemental Thing in style and execution (indeed is presented on the back blurb as a continuation of that previous book), while the second section is a compendium of essays, book reviews, and forewords. The topics here vary but, as one may expect with Weinberger, the theme is unified.
While I was overjoyed to see some of the same technique deployed here as in Weinberger’s previous work, the overall effect is less powerful, the pieces a touch more indulgent, more expansive, as though the stylistic discipline from that earlier book was not so strictly imposed. The first half of The Ghosts of Birds is in many ways like a series of outtakes from that earlier book, good on their own but not quite good enough for the final draft. And yet when they are good, they are very good indeed. In the middle of the book’s eponymous ten-page poem about (what else) birds, we have:
Young girls would paint themselves like parakeets.
Bothersome children are like parakeets.
If you dream a parakeet is lying in an oven
you may be certain that soon you will die.
The shells of hatched parakeets turn into maggots,
which turn into lizards,
which creep down the throats of sleeping people.
Kākāriki, the red-crowned parakeet,
who had his head splashed with blood
when Māui killed the eel monster Tunarua
Red: the color of bravery. Red: the sacred color of the gods. Red feathers on the cloaks, mats, axes, kites, headdresses,
digging sticks, the gables of houses, the ceremonial aprons. Red feather tied to the middle finger of the corpse of a chief.
There were ninety shades of red. Red feathers were said to shine in
Red shift: it shifts to red as it retreats in distance and time…
Where is this? Does it matter? The disconnection from the specific frees the specificities themselves to attach to our own perception—ritual linked to science in such a way as to lend the ritual more depth, insight, verisimilitude. This sort of technique, lifted from nowhere so much as Ezra Pound’s Cantos, collapses time and space into the delivery of a poetic line that draws exhilarating correspondence between the otherwise asymmetrical, suggesting a truth that is on the other side of words and yet nevertheless evident in them. Alas, it occurs far too infrequently here in to justify, for instance, a ten-page poem consisting mostly of bird-sounds, identical in both content and form to the piece “Where the Kaluli Live,” from An Elemental Thing.
Interestingly, The Ghosts of Birds hits its stride in its second half, a collection of previously published essays, reviews and introductions. The casually delivered insights in these pieces are remarkable, from the role of cities in antiquity (“the city wall was magical before it was military, marking a place of order in the chaos of the world”), to the slow reception of Buddhism in the west, to the mysterious structure and intent of the ancient Chinese text, the I Ching. Weinberger’s review of G.W. Bush’s “autobiography” Decision Points does much to evaporate any currently building sentimentality towards that past regime, and his overview of the life of Charles Reznikoff sent me hurrying back to the poetry in an attempt to see what Weinberger himself sees. And yet, even by the end of the second section of The Ghosts of Birds, I began to feel as though Weinberger’s principal trick had been pulled just a few too many times. The western world and its multitudinous prejudices are reflected in not only its grudging acceptance of Buddhism, but in its treatment of Kubla Khan (“Khubilai Khan at the Met”), Hindu India (“American Indias"), and Chinese poetry (“Bela Balaz’s Chinese Dreams”). Each piece remains evocative on its own but, placing them in such close proximity as the book does serves chiefly to deaden their effect.
Perhaps one of the most interesting things about The Ghosts of Birds is it sudden popularity. Within a month of its release it had sold out on Amazon, a fascinating development for a hodge-podge collection of avant-garde essays and modernist poetry. Perhaps, as a result of Weinberger’s slowly yet steadily growing reputation, the publishers worked to put the force of an actual media push behind Birds, as they have placed interviews and reviews for the book with everyone from The New Yorker to Tin House to the Los Angeles Review of Books. In any event, both the attention and the sales are long overdue, Weinberger being, to my mind, one of the more important American writers alive. And if the popularity of the current book acts as a gateway to the rest of his work, be it An Elemental Thing or the equally impressive Oranges and Peanuts For Sale or Karmic Traces, then all the better for readers. Media-bruised and perpetually present as we are forced to be, it would do us a little good to realize that the news of the distant past—and the distinctly other-ed past—nestles up next to us easily and without quarrel. Even too easily. As Weinberger tells us about those ancient Aztec rituals to ensure the renewal of the world, messengers would carry fire “from the Hill of the Star to the principal temples, and from there to the palaces, and from the palaces, street by street, house by house, until the whole city was lit again. All night, relay runners carried the new fire throughout the empire. People threw themselves at the fire, to be blessed with blisters.”
Cameron MacKenzie's work has appeared in Able Muse, The Rumpus, SubStance and The Michigan Quarterly Review, among other journals. His essays have been collected in The Waste Land at 90: A Retrospective and Edward P. Jones: New Essays. His novel The Beginning of His Excellent and Eventful Career is forthcoming from Madhat Press. He teaches English at Ferrum College.