Every once in awhile, I have an experience with a piece of art, a moment where everything slows down and reformulates itself as I watch. It happens with music, it happens with paintings, it happens with dance, it happens with writing. It’s not about understanding, though comprehension is in there somewhere. It’s not about pleasure either, because sometimes the experience is jarring and uncomfortable. It’s another kind of engagement, like you’re watching a stone wall swing open to reveal a secret room because somebody knew how to place a hand in exactly the right spot.
I had one of these experiences in mid-April on a stage with three of Canada’s top poets, all Governor General’s Literary Award winners: Katherena Vermette, Lorna Crozier, and Patrick Lane. All three had read from their work, and we had gathered to talk about what kind of public role poetry and poets might actually perform.
As I remember it, Patrick Lane was speaking animatedly about how all of the arts are only variations on a human urge to tell stories, and how that impulse is so critical to our connection to one another and to our understandings. Patrick is an energetic man with an energetic mind; he’s boisterous, sensitive, funny, passionate. He was gesturing broadly, then suddenly he leaned toward the audience, his fingers steepled in front of him. “The bird you captured is dead,” he said.
His intensity was fierce, and the shift from talk to poem so swift and complete that we were all transposed, but still hearing with our regular ears. “You wanted / to cage a bird in your hands,” he said, “and learn to fly.” His hands hovered in front of him, a cage of fingers.
“You must not handle birds,” he said.
“You are not a nest,” he said.
In the course of the poem, I was catapulted into of one of those experiences, mesmerized by Patrick’s voice, but also wildly unpacking and repacking my own awareness. What do I attempt to catch and hold, contain, tame? Do I protect the wild spirit in myself, my loved people, my world? What is the bird? What is the cage?
To me, this is what art can do. It connects our intellect to our sensory selves, it links up the body and mind and spirit, it channels us into new ways of knowing. The power is not exactly in the art, but in the alchemy between expression and reception. Clearly, I was ready to think about containment and freedom, about responsibility and permission. Being offered the poem allowed me to realize it in a transformative way.
“The Bird” ends this way: “A bird is a poem / that talks about the end of cages.” When Patrick arrived there, he sat back and we all took a breath, gave ourselves a second to return to our own time and space. Myself, I am going forward a little changed, a little more aware of what flies and what dies. I carry this poem with me now—a warning, a promise, a call to action.