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Michigan Bookmark: “The Bird-while” delves into the truth of beauty, evanescence in nature

drawing of a bird
Tom Pohrt, "The Bird-while" reprinted with permission of Wayne State University Press
An illustration by Ann Arbor native Tom Pohrt found within the pages of The Bird-while by Keith Taylor.

Keith Taylor is a naturalist as well as a poet. Every summer, he spends several weeks at the University of Michigan’s Biological Station.

The poems in his newest collection contain a close, almost scientific, attention to detail. This is a collection that delves into the truth of beauty, evanescence and life through communion with the natural world.
The title The Bird-while refers to a term coined by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who asserted that the amount of space birds maintain between themselves and their observers is fixed and can be relied on — even measured on a natural chronometer.

The poems in this collection are mostly short and informed by Taylor’s protracted surveillance. In interviews, he states that his fidelity to the natural world extends back to a childhood spent in rural Canada and the fact that he is, as he puts it, "only one generation removed from the farm.”

In the long poem, "Mapping the River," Taylor recreates the sensation of floating down a river beginning with the headwaters, “seeping/out between horizons of gravel/and clay” where the water is just “the suggestion of river” and continuing, in his words, to the “perfect lonely moments when we want only to watch the fall of water, to feel the spray, to hear—thankfully—only the dam’s white noise.” The poem ends at Dead Man’s Point where “the dead would hang up in the rushes or on the gray-brown log snags, often disappearing under snow and ice, their bones scattered and gone by break-up.”

Taylor’s childhood home was remote, and one surmises from several poems here that even with the lure of the wilderness, he was restless as a teenager. The collection contains two poems about running away from home, one of which, "Banff, Running Away," offers this astute rumination about youth:

“I was young enough to believe that when moments felt significant/they probably were. I saw sacraments everywhere.”

More than any other creature in this collection, Taylor finds the “otherness” of birds fascinating, because, as he has says, they are mysterious, allowing only glimpses of their lives, disappearing for long periods and then returning of their own accord.

Taylor cuts a gentle path through these poems, perhaps most strikingly in the last one:


We have lingered in that space
granted by a woodpecker
before it disappears on the far side
of a dying elm. We have held
our collective breath as a warbler—
redstart, prothonotary, or golden-winged—
brushes across our shoulders. We have prayed
to avian gods we don’t believe in
that piping plovers may avoid
windows, cats and windmills,
will survive habitat loss,
climate change, and oil spills,
to allow us that one
immeasurable moment at sunset
when we count their glowing bills
among our fragile, vanishing gifts.

What a gift to spend some time with Keith Taylor in The Bird-while.

Kelly Fordon is a poet and fiction writer. Her collection of linked stories "Garden for the Blind" was an INDIEFAB Finalist, a Midwest Book Award Finalist, an IPPY Awards Bronze Medalist and was chosen as a Michigan Notable Book.

Michigan Bookmark is a series that features Michigan authors reviewing Michigan books. Find more reviews here.

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