Owling—Grayson Books 2016 Chapbook Contest Winner
Reading this chapbook, I am fondly reminded of the diorama exhibits of stuffed birds at the county museum a short drive from my childhood home—the birds suspended on fishing line with their wings spread on the wind or attending their nests. Here, still is an element of learning, but it is not confined to a description of avian habits on a metal placard. Instead, these creatures are incredibly alive in their beauty, danger, and in some cases endangerment. The Grayson Books 2016 Chapbook Contest Winner, Owling, consists of eighteen subspecies of owl, the titles of each poem, in which Jeredith Merrin delivers images in enlightening particulars, until we realize it is human stories that connect us to these solitary birds. In “The Great Gray Owl,” she writes,
“thick feathers make a smaller man look large—
I mean a bird. I mean a man…” (22)
We are ever increasingly entwined in the narrative. Here too is our survival, our feeling, our beauty. In “Eastern Screech Owl,” she writes,
“These birds don’t really screech or scream,
unless it’s silently—
like a wife who doesn’t know
weather to stay, or go.” (32)
It becomes a celebration of distinction from “Elf Owl” to “Snowy Owl” to “Maned Owl.” And that may be seen in the diversity of free verse forms in which Merrin chooses to present the poems. In “The Burrowing Owl,” there is a playful back forth indention of stanzas mimicking the exiting and entering of the owl, “like Marilyn in The Misfits,” she writes, declaring on the steps of the half-built house, “I can go in! And I can come out!” (17). Merrin is transparent in her research, another way that the stories of these birds connect to a shared and vibrant history. She locates a naturalists and explorer, Thomas Wright Blakiston, buried just blocks from a home of hers in Ohio as well as “The Little Owl,” “an unlikely emblem for the goddess of wisdom” (20). Furthermore, each owl poem receives its scientific name below the title. The truth of these owls is a network.
The term “owling” today refers to the practice of crouching like an owl in unusual spaces. Here, it is not a joke or a mimic, for there is no single definition that might be applied to the species collected. For instance, most, but not all owls are nocturnal hunters. How can we claim knowing so easily when owls are often invisible? Rainer Maria Rilke once advised a writer to “hold close to nature, to what is simple in it, to the small things people hardly see and which all of a sudden can become great and immeasurable…” (Letters to a Young Poet 16 July 1903). Jeredith Merrin has done so in Owling. She has held close nature and shared her love for the unseen. Through this delicate attention, the reader gains access to a worldwide terrain, to the myths and histories where the mysterious owl appears as devil, as protector, as carry-on stowaway. And what if we linger our judgment? Merrin allows moments of grace. She encourages,
“Never suppose you know another mind
When hunting, be alone and camouflaged
Whether or not you see the marks, all love is maculate” (35)
Merrin’s handle on the animal image is inquisitive, gentle, and lovely in its complexity. I highly recommend this book. Owling is available for purchase at jerredithmerrin.com, Grayson Books, and Amazon. Please also see her earlier publication, Cup.
Merrin, Jeredith. Owling. Grayson Books, 2016.