If you open Danielle Vogel’s book, Edges & Fray, a few pages in, you’ll see on the left-hand page three square photographs of birds’ nests, and on the right-hand side syntactical fragments including, “a book arrives in threads—.” As the interrelation of nest-building and text-composing emerges, we become privy to these two undertakings. The photographs (taken by Vogel), functioning as windows, evoke the act of peering in to detect the nest builder’s methods. Some materials from the nest are in sharp focus while others appear blurry, suggesting the eye’s variable perception and movement. Vogel foregrounds the raw materials of her own writing with untethered lines and phrases hovering across and down the field of the page; punctuation marks behave like glyphs or illustrative jottings. She brings us close to her activity—an activity (like nest-building) that is often concealed and sequestered.
As Vogel gently enacts these labors, we experience their fits and starts. She indicates that a text might be held together with loose logic and association, and also mentions the actual adhesives necessary in nest building, i.e. bird saliva and mud. As a fieldworker might, Vogel provides lists of needed materials: “thread, yarn, buttonholes, stamps, newspaper remains” and “leaf skeletons/ twigs/bark-strips,” in addition to the less tangible: “entangled expanse of one’s own interiority.” She juxtaposes the reading of scraps and strands making up the nests with the literal envisioning of those pieces.
In considering the compiling of matter, Vogel posits the idea of “archiving” and says, “we read debris and make seemingly complete shapes.” She suggests that life’s ephemera and documents can be assembled to create a text or a nest—both displaying complex architectures. However, form doesn’t manifest in the orderly manner that we might have anticipated; it is “never linear , circuitous , / associative-unseen / but felt.” And, as her title, Edges & Fray, implies, these structures may be provisional, exposing some roughness and rawness. In fact, the rough-hewn quality of the nest’s ingredients enter Vogel’s descriptions of text creating: “a coil of words” or “a loosely thatched paragraph.” Her figurative language continues to emphasize the superimposing of the two activities:
as it accumulates ,
/ thread by line –
, sometimes sloughing off /
As the book aims to discover harmonic relations between the two endeavors, we’re inclined to do the same.
What do we glean from this close consideration of the two enterprises? Without anthropomorphizing the bird realm, we might think of the kinship of the human animal and non-human animal, and how they share some analogous motives. Both activities rely on the body’s motions. The body, bird or human, informs and imbues its creations with rhythms, efforts, and, dare one say, devotional impulses. We might find a parallel in the book The Bird, published in 1856 by French historian Jules Michelet—a favorite of Gaston Bachelard—in which he describes the bird’s task:
The house is a bird’s very person; it is its form and its most immediate effort,
I shall even say its suffering. The result is only obtained by constantly repeated
pressure of the breast. There is not one of these blades of grass that, in order to
make it curve and hold the curve, has not been pressed on countless times by
the bird’s breast, its heart, surely with difficulty in breathing, perhaps even, with
Vogel says, “Start by bringing in your most secret sound,” as an indication of how both human and bird begin their creations with a body’s output. Could we then summon or divine from the finished product the physical sounds of work and sacrifice? We might detect nurturing instincts in both: the intent to make room, make space for others. In one photograph we can see the partial spheres of eggs resting in soft clouds of milkweed, a reminder of the nest as incubator.
In the last section of the book, “ : Slowness, Time –” Vogel makes room for her own personal recollections, with journal-like prose entries all beginning with the anaphoric “it began.” She probes her own formation and her own tendencies, recalling episodes with her lover, friends, various family members, such as “It began with my father holding my hand. We are walking along the slick barnacled rocks by the bay. It began when I closed my eyes to feel the lift of the wind.” Her encounters with the natural world, in turn, bring her closer to non-empirical and invisible realms: “It began when I wanted to take memory in my hands and rework it.”
In its entirety, this book is a gorgeously constructed daybook of thought and record(ing), a guide, a keepsake. Recently, we’ve seen other book projects, such as C.D. Wright’s Casting Deep Shade, Brenda Hillman’s Extra Hidden Life, Among the Days, and Jody Gladding Translations from Bark Beetle, that bring text, image, and practice together in intimately close consideration. With their various acts of attention and their patient delving into nature’s archive, they transcribe “voices” from our natural world. Like Vogel, they invite us to allow more inclusivity as we tune in to and “read” these various frequencies that dwell right here among us.
Molly Bendall is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently, Watchful from Omnidawn Press. Her poems and reviews have appeared in Lana Turner, New American Writing, Bone Bouquet, Bennington Review, and Volt. She teaches at the University of Southern California.