One of my guilty pleasures is reading books about animals. It’s a joy, for instance, to read that dogs and humans may well have joined up in prehistory, during the time of gargantuan predatory mammals, to forge an alliance that increased each species’ chances for survival:dogs were fed on a regular basis by humans and humans were protected and shown useful hunting grounds by dogs. Either group might have perished without the other. All in all, humans may not have had much going for them otherwise.
“Mozart’s Starling” and “Counterpoint” tap into species collaboration of sorts, though I wasn’t really conscious of that until I started writing this rumination. It doesn’t seem so farfetched to me that humans and animals try to communicate with each other. I talked to a trainer once at Shedd’s Aquarium in Chicago who told me that dolphins understand sentences. They put together subject, verb, object; in fact, most of the dolphins at Shedd’s know hundreds of sentences. And this was just in the case of dolphins learning human syntax—imagine what might happen if humans tried to learn dolphin. It seems to me one of the purviews of the arts to allow us to imagine what it would feel like to be another consciousness. Hence the persona poem—or in this particular case, the animal-being poem.
Before I started writing “Mozart’s Starling” I looked up the sounds a starling makes (there are many instances online) and found myself astonished at the vocal range, including clicks, chirrs, conspiring whispers, melismas, dive-bomb musical scales, voices with uncannily precise accents, and incredibly manic delivery. At some point it didn't feel presumptuous to imagine myself speaking starling. To capture all these facets of voice on the page I felt I needed to do what writers are usually cautioned not to do—use excessive capitalization, exclamation points, even superscript. I wanted to convey the bird's preternatural liveliness.
It only makes sense that in their day-to-day lives, composer and pet would have heard each other’s riffs resounding in their heads. It seems altogether plausible that Mozart’s starling would have reproduced some of the sound effects of his keeper. But when you hear the virtuosity of the starling it also seems altogether possible that Mozart might have cribbed some of his musical phrases from the bird, which is what I want the poem to suggest. Clearly Mozart himself believed that he and his companion communicated. (He cared enough about the bird that, upon its decease, he organized a funeral, during the same week as the death of his father.)
The layerings of voice here are important to me. The German comes mostly from remembered vocabulary after a time of living in Bonn when I was in junior high—hence my degraded preteen diction including Scheiss, etc., which made it easier for me to enter Mozart’s infamous love of scatological talk. The poem mediates formal and informal German, folk music, classical music, and bird music—all languages speaking in concert with each other. I guess the crux of the poem might lie in these polyphonic strands, and in the understanding that the process of creative inspiration has trouble distinguishing origins, that a composition echoes and reechoes in involvement with others. A work of art builds itself in the context of relationship, depending upon the point and counterpoint inherent in interaction.
Which brings me to “Counterpoint,” another poem of creative collaboration. Temple Grandin makes the beautiful suggestion that our ability to make and hear music may well arise out of another relationship in prehistory when humans tried to mimic birds in their wondrous capacity as song makers. We may have creatures besides ourselves to thank for one of the most poignant parts of being human: the ability to sing.