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On "Birdwatching at Fan Lake"

Jim Beatty

Among the long, multi-faceted tradition of "nature" poems, one of the most striking examples of a productive, decidedly anti-idealizing reflection on the social function of the natural world is Anita Endrezze’s "Birdwatching at Fan Lake." Rather than a disingenuous myth of Romantic transcendental connection between the autonomous subject and her dematerialized sublime landscape, Endrezze highlights how our interactions with our surroundings are mediated through social, cultural, and discursive practices. Rather than a mystical "communing" with nature seen as the special "skill" of the Indian in dominant Anglo mis-representations, "Birdwatching at Fan Lake" enacts a subjective, communal translation of experience into an evocative, compressed reflection of how we produce the natural world while at the same time being produced by it. Endrezze rehearses the ultimate act of creation–she speaks, and nature is, while at the same time nature speaks her, and she is.

On MAPS, Leslie Ullman attempts to describe this dual motion when she asserts that Endrezze employs "metaphors interweaving the natural world with the landscape of human emotion." This presupposes, however, that "the natural world" and "the landscape of human emotion" could exist as separate entities, a possibility for which "Birdwatching at Fan Lake" does not seem to allow. Ullman’s perspective seems even less productive when she speaks of a "primal sensibility" in Endrezze’s poetry. Despite Ullman’s seemingly genuine intentions, the word "primal" evokes the history of dominant Anglo distortions of the indigenous cultures of the Americas, reinscribing the myth of non-coevality upon which that history is predicated in an attempt to claim Endrezze as an authentic "Indian" voice. I think that Cary Nelson is far closer to the mark in his introduction to Endrezze in the Anthology when he says that "she has been unusually successful at finding linguistic equivalents of Native American views of nature." Rather than some pre-historic (or ahistoric) melding of the natural world with human subjectivity, Endrezze remarkably demonstrates how the two can be inter-connected and mutually constitutive.

"Birdwatching at Fan Lake" enacts a complex, contemporary vision of this inter-connectedness. Far from a "primal" Indian vision, the poem bears out Endrezze’s own caution on MAPS about imposing a vision of "Indianness" on her work: "Although I'm Yaqui I don't speak for all Yaquis. I speak for me and my experiences as a woman, a half-Yaqui, and a wife and mother." The poem demonstrates a dual individual and collective sensibility much in the same manner that this warning does. Endrezze opens with a collective vision by placing her poetic vision in the dynamic interactions of the speaker and her companion as they work together to produce the natural world around them. One source that produces their shared vision is the birdwatching guide that is the "genesis of egg and feather," in the process of "begetting / the moist nest of the osprey." The poem recognizes from the start how our perceptions of nature are in part discursively produced. The speaker goes on to demonstrate, however, that this discursive production is not exclusively textual, for she actively deploys her poetic voice to create remarkable images such as "the birds fly / into the white corridor of the sky" and the equally evocative reflection wondering "does the ruffed grouse’s drumming / enter into the memories of trees?" Rather than a Romantic vision of the natural world as a separate, empirical "reality" waiting for the proper "primal" vision to appreciate it in a more appropriate manner, "Birdwatching at Fan Lake" self-consciously highlights and enacts the discursive production of what we see in nature.

The speaker explicitly forecloses, however, a reading of these images as an authentic view of nature coming out of an ahistorical "Indian" past. Rather than a lone, privileged subjective vision, these images are dynamically produced in the speaker’s interactions with her companion. Their collective project–firmly rooted in the present with material details such as the "salt crackers"–is the grounds upon which the possibility of her striking representation of nature is predicated, for they "travel" to the space of this vision together. The necessity of the collective nature of this endeavor is highlighted by the disruption her companion causes in trying to take control of the journey, symbolized by his "hand on the oar." (The phallic imagery here is the thin basis upon which I’m choosing to gender the speaker’s companion masculine). His attempt to take control causes the speaker to think of separation, which would mean the end of their instructive visions of the natural world. It is at this pivotal point that the simultaneous production of their collective subjectivity by nature becomes apparent. The speaker’s "Love" makes amends for his transgression in trying to take control by giving voice to nature’s production of their subjectivity. He achieves this by redirecting the poetic gaze to a frame containing nature, symbolized in the birds, dynamic history, embodied in the "kingfisher[‘s] / . . . eggs [which] are laid on fish bones," and human culture, the "orange-vested children" sharing the scene with the birds. While the speaker’s lover threatens their complex, interwoven relationship with nature by trying to assert his control of the other two subjects (i.e. the speaker and nature), his discursive reintegration of their collective existence prevents an irreparable rift.

He solidifies this inter-connectedness in identifying her "hand" as a "wing," which initiates a lasting re-birth both in their human relationship and in their collective relationship with nature. The speaker evokes a sense of lasting continuity by affirming that the "herons / . . . are pewter" who "wear / medallions of patience." The poem closes with the vitality of their heart newly infused with life, for the "currents between" them are "full of hearts that beat quick / and strong." "Birdwatching at Fan Lake" is a remarkably complex account of how human subjects can inter-act with nature in a unified manner, informed by social relations, human culture, and history. The possibility that the poem enacts forestalls the much lamented disjunction between humanity and nature (e.g. "The world is too much with us") by undercutting the logic that makes such an artificial separation possible in the first place.

Copyright 2001 by Jim Beatty

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