Emily Dickinson,
A Spicing of Birds: Poems by Emily Dickinson, Illustrations by Early Masters of Bird Art
(Wesleyan University Press, 2010)

The saddest noise, the sweetest noise,
The maddest noise that grows, --
The birds, they make it in the spring,
At night's delicious close.

-- Emily Dickinson

When works are readily available to the public at large, one must question sometimes the reasons for reissuing them in a new package. Is it, in some way, a significant improvement over previous formats?

In the case of A Spicing of Birds, the answer is a resounding "yes." Sure, the poetry of Emily Dickinson is already on the market in numerous forms, but this new, specialized collection is a meaningful and appealingly packaged alternative.

If you weren't already aware, book editors Jo Miles Schuman and Joanna Baily Hodgman will explain Dickinson's abiding love for birds. They appear in a great number of her poems, usually with a sense of delight and wonder. This collection, then, couples Dickinson's poetry along that theme with 18th- and 19th-century illustrations that a birder of Dickinson's generation would have enjoyed.

Look for the gorgeous, highly detailed work of John James Audubon, Allan Brooks, Robert Ridgway, Cordelia J. Stanwood, Alexander Wilson and more. They provide a perfect setting for these 37 poems, which here are reproduced on heavy stock, in a weighty book that is a pleasure to read.

Birds, the editors note in their introduction, are mentioned 222 times in Dickson's poetry.

"Birds were an inseparable part of Dickinson's world," they write. "She brings them to us in her poetry, where we see and hear them through her eyes and ears. Her brilliant observations enrich our own acquaintance with these same 'common' birds. Many readers familiar with the songs of birds but less so with the cadences of poetry may find unexpected beauty and pleasure in her words."

Dickinson also was capable of voicing her outrage at what was, to her, the destruction of a precious life.

His Bill is clasped -- his Eye forsook --
His feathers wilted low --
The claws that hung, like lifeless Gloves
Indifferent hanging now --
The Joy that in his happy Throat
Was waiting to be poured
Gored through and through with Death, to be
Assassin of a Bird
Resembles to my outraged mind
The firing in Heaven,
On Angels -- squandering for you
Their Miracles of Tune --

Perhaps more satisfying is Dickinson's substitution of her garden, and the birds and flowers that lived there, for a house of worship made by human hands.

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church --
I keep it, staying at Home --
With a Bobolink for a Chorister --
And an Orchard, for a Dome --

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice --
I just wear my Wings --
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton -- sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman --
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last --
I'm going, all along.

A Spicing of Birds is a lovely book that should find its home on the shelves of nature and poetry lovers alike. In Dickinson, the two passions intersected, and this volume is a fitting testament to them both.

book review by
Tom Knapp

28 May 2011

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