Review by Erin Feldman
THE CROWS WERE LAUGHING IN THEIR TREES
by Peter Conners
White Pine Press
P.O. Box 236
Buffalo, New York 14201
2011, 59 pp., $16.00
To read Peter Conner’s The Crows Were Laughing in Their Trees is to be initiated into a darkly comedic and surreal world. Readers are given fair warning. The book opens with a quote from William Carlos Williams: “We leap awake and what we see / fells us // Let terror twist the world!”
Williams’ quote informs the entirety of the work, which consists of prose poems divided into five sections. The book depicts a world that constantly shifts or is askew, perhaps reflecting the interim between dream and reality. In “Animals and Other People,” the speaker remarks:
When I play with hummingbirds it is easy to break their hollow bones. Their yellow blood decorates the inside of pickle jars. In the morning, they sing me down to breakfast. We forget our dreams. In the morning it is easy to forget your dreams.
The final poem of the first section, “The Owners of Things,” also presents a strange world that informs other sections of the book; a boy plays with earrings like a “dog worrying a clean, white deer skull” only to have the dog metamorphose into a coyote and the skull to turn into a porcupine. The final lines of that poem–“The man moved to Slayer the way toddlers dance to any music; disjointed, utterly absorbed, the definition of tragic”–resonate with other sections of the book. In the fourth section, for instance, the language itself is disjointed, often unpunctuated, and constantly shifting from one image or narrative to another. In the poem “Long House,” the speaker begins, “I was a slave in another life,” only to move seamlessly from that statement to other lives and worlds which are inhabited by mastodons, berries, trout, and other people.
This world isn’t merely strange; it also is observed by seemingly capricious beings. The speaker in “One Morning at the Lab” states:
They put the mouse into a cage and told him he wasn’t a mouse…He was given the name Lucky Star to make him feel more celestial but the next day it was changed to Sun and then Vapor and then God and finally Mickey which gave them all a good laugh. When he sang it was as if memory itself were sighing and shivering with delight. This was the best part of their day.
Other poems, such as “Waiting” and “Meat Zoo,” also allude to some sort of show and an audience. In “Meat Zoo,” the speaker observes, “The monkeys had been burning all morning. In the midst of it all, peanuts were sold at a discount.” The poems in the fourth section also are obsessed with the idea of a show; however, the show has become a parade. It is first mentioned in “Entrance: Where We Leave From”: “The parade goes swimmingly. And then there is pudding.” “The Church & The Steeple” and “Charred Remains” also refer to parades, although the parade in “Charred Remains” is, in a way, more painful: “You may have it [your worst experience] scrubbed from your memory, but first you must parade it for the entire world.”
The world also is death-ridden. Death is insinuated in the first section and poem of the book, “Bite the Pomegranate,” and is brought to fruition in other sections. In “Bite the Pomegranate,” the speaker says:
Blessed is the girl who observes brains in the bloody pustules set before her. Blessed the incisors popping those pustules devouring the places where memory bleeds toward violence against one’s self. Heal thy self. Love the shadowy movement of thine own imagination. Eat your fruit. Fall from trees.
In the second section, spider monkeys and a woman die. A window cleaner kills himself. A wristwatch outlives its owner by decades. Death is alluded to in the third section, a single poem entitled “Movements Forward, Movements Away”:
This quilt sewn from the memories of generations, the baby blankets of ghosts, the longings of raindrops merging into ponds where the boy and the girl swam down holding hands. The legend says that they never returned.
Death maintains its omnipresence in the fourth section. The final poem of the section, “Into the Sky Falls an Executive,” concludes with the words “a woman considers the terms of her final internment but comes to no conclusions.” The fifth section, another single poem entitled “Discussions with the Bridesmaid,” makes an explicit reference to death: “If by die you mean invisible and ineffectual, then yes. I am / conducting electricity like never before.” The death appears to be more metaphorical than literal, but such a death isn’t without precedent. Other metaphorical deaths occur throughout the book. Shelly, the barista in “The Coffee Barista’s Experiment,” is trapped: “It was in that instant that you glimpse the outside world before the bathroom door latches shut…It was almost dawn. She couldn’t bear to think of what might happen next.” In “Postcard from the Banquet,” the metaphorical qualities of death are directly addressed. The speaker says, “Aware that the metaphorical properties of Death were exhausted, the visiting scholar vowed to avoid it altogether.”
If parades, shows, and deaths are common motifs, so is memory, or, to be more precise, the fracturing of memory. Memory is first mentioned in “Bite the Pomegranate.” The speaker remarks, “The juice of a red pomegranate seed impregnated by the memory of its mother branch in the family grave,” referring not only to memory but also to death. Memory resurfaces in “Tragic Old Love”: “Four days ago music held the place for his most important memories; now she lowers herself down knowing that she will be back in Europe before the rubble is cleared.” The mouse in “One Morning at the Lab” sings as though “memory itself was sighing and shivering with delight.” The third section of the book consists of memories; it’s written in the past tense and shares the love story of a boy and a girl: “They fell in love in the most common of ways.” In the fourth section, memory is fractured further. “Long House” is a series of disjointed memories, perhaps true, perhaps false, as well as disjointed language. “Here Are Some Things” addresses the impermanence of memory directly; the speaker desires that “the meandering willow tickling the wind…last in your memory.” The final section is a succession of memories, many of them dealing with loss, as in the lines “There is only mourning here only the essence of saffron amid / simmering Rose petals” and “You may hold your only child but you must hold the sorrow of / this memory alone.”
For all the dark elements found within The Crows Were Laughing in Their Trees, the work avoids descending into total despair or pessimism. That avoidance is partially due to the absurdity of some of the tales. “Animals and Other People” is particularly comic; the speaker’s flat tone in stating that his uncle is a monkey and his cousin is a panda injects humor into an otherwise dark poem. Section three, the love poem “Movements Forward, Movements Away,” also keeps the work from becoming abysmal. The poem depicts love in the following manner:
The boy raised his hands to his sides and swiftly clapped them together over his head. As he did, the entire sky – stars, moons, galaxies, solar systems – went dark. The sky was pure black. The boy pulled the only light in the universe from his pocket and placed it on the girl’s ring finger.
The fourth section, which delves into some issues of belief and faith, builds upon earlier poems, such as “One Night a Girl in the Suburbs” and “The Coffee Barista’s Experiment,” in its desire for freedom. The desire is equivocal; in “The Directions That We Move (slight refrain),” the speaker acknowledges he can “never fully leave / [his] …old life behind.” A similar sentiment is expressed in “The Prayers of Strangers”:
I want so badly to eat your monsters, my stranger, to make them mine. But we are trapped in these thoughts – mother standing over daughter – while I long to be praying with you.
The desire to be free and the impossibility of satiating that desire proliferate throughout the fourth section, ultimately coalescing in the woman who considers her final internment but reaches no conclusions. It is only in the fifth and final section that the speaker seems to come to some sort of resolution: “The wind shows the sun and the tree the frailty of exposed bone. / If by broken you mean earthbound, // I apologize for my hunger: it was not meant to offend.”
The thematic elements of The Crows Were Laughing in Their Trees–and there are many of them –are barely contained within the chosen form of the prose poem. Sometimes, the language escalates to such a degree that it is a literal torrent of words. In other poems, the narrative holds sway. Conners occasionally imposes some sort of form upon that narrative- or language-driven force. In “The Church & The Steeple,” he forces the poem into a shape that reflects the church structure and childhood rhyme. The shape devolves in the final lines–altogether fitting considering the words: “prayers like this lock step a bayonet scar a shrapnel / bazaar the wind through our shelter”–as well as the ambiguousness regarding faith found within the poem and its containing section. Conners even employs line breaks in some of the poems and creates visual space on the page through the arrangement of lines, a “twisting” of the form that only complements the twisted world contained within the work. Into that cacophony of form, motifs, language, and narrative, Conners superimposes sections. Those sections provide welcome relief at times and indicate some sort of “shift.” The first and last sections work as introductory and concluding pieces, although that conclusion is nebulous at best. Rather than providing a solid conclusion, the final lines of the book compel a return to the beginning in which the speaker blesses the girl whose hunger causes her to eat the fruit, the “bloody pustules,” and to a contemplation of the other sections that detail what is found within those pustules, those seeds of memory.
Entering the world of The Crows Were Laughing in Their Trees is to entertain a place that is twisted both in form and subject matter. It is a world that is both surreal and all too real. The dreams–if they are dreams–resonate too much with reality. It is a space that, once twisted, cannot be untwisted. It remains a miry, shifting place of form, memories, absurdity, death, hope, language, and faith.
Erin Feldman received her MFA in creative writing with an emphasis in poetry from Texas State University-San Marcos. She works as a freelance writer and social media manager. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.