The Book of Crow
The unfinished, epic series of narrative poems, Crow: from the Life and Songs of Crow, served as a repository for Ted Hughes’s grieving and guilt. As a locus of bereavement, the Crow poems made intuitive sense as a shadow text for Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers and, here, for Lyle Rexer’s picaresque that attempts to make sense of the past two years. This excerpt comes from two short stories, “The Last of Crow” and “Crow in the Time of Cholera.” Playful absurdity emerges with the crow’s-eye view, and there’s much to be enjoyed in the trickster experience of corvid covid.
Crow looked over a world he never made and found it not so bad, something he could live with if he had to.
Crow was not burdened with big ideas. He liked to say there were two kinds of creatures in the fields he knew – those who stood still and those who couldn’t stop moving. He likened them to the difference between strategists and tacticians. Crow was strategic, but impulsive.
Crow’s friends sometimes asked him about the past. For some reason, they loved post-egg reminiscences: the trauma of first flight (some schadenfreude here as they related stories about birds that hadn’t learned to fly and failed – fatally – their first and only test); being fed in the nest and the reassurance of that beak-to-beak contact; the coital triumphs based on their plumage displays. (“My colors were out of sight, super fresh, and I totally smashed them, but no, we’re not still together.”) They were all so gregarious. It was like a locker room. Crow said: “I remember wet warmth, a time before sunlight and the amazing appearance of feathers. I remember my saurian ancestors.” That put a stop to conversation.
Flying, Crow thought: What was the proper height for his kind? High enough to see the Earth’s near edge but not so high that he lost sight of burnished rooftops, the fenceposts and wire that stitched the land together, the intricate tangle of forests, so much like the hair of human beings, the sinuous bend of a river when its surface catches the sun. Leave the upper atmosphere to the raptorial birds, the hunters who drop like stones toward their prey. That was an extreme sport he never had a taste for, but he could imagine it.
And speaking of death, Crow opened his eyes each morning on a mountain of corpses – all part of the world as he found it. He was used to coming last and wasn’t insulted by the reputation; l’ultimo viene il corvo they said in Italy. But he preferred the French: Après le déluge, moi. It sounded grander, more important, the triumph of the survivors. Whatever. He thought of himself as a realist, and that set him apart from birds that dove and dropped and dug to get their food. They had appetites, Crow had tastes, because he did not kill, he curated, he chose. He stayed away from the shrikes, torturers. Something went so wrong with them; there was no discussion. But he hated the vultures. They were addicted to carrion, in love with death, and it warped them. You could see it in their eyes. (Clearly, Crow was feeling defensive about his own habits.)
Crow’s dreams often involved other animals, other ways of being. Visions of the peewit, the crocodile, the boa constrictor came to him often. Once he dreamt he was a wolf. The dream went like this: He was flying through the woods, where he almost never went, and saw a wolf in the distance. It looked like the farmer’s dog, scrawny brown and silver but still as a piece of wood. When Crow approached on gigantic wings, the animal sprang into the air. Crow felt himself lifting off powerful hind legs, touching down here and there, zigzagging like a deer, and moving among the maze of trees at a speed more thrilling than flight.
Crow saw more and more. He saw the roots of plants burrowing like blind bulbs in the thick soil darkness. He saw water cutting new channels through the soil. He saw forests burning in blossoms of light. He saw the surface of Earth shift and open, swallowing whole cities. He saw doctors running off to other emergencies. He saw a prisoner tying shoelaces into a noose. He saw a woman dreaming of sculptural perfection. He saw ice losing its grip. He saw a library of books whose black letters were meant only for him, letters he could almost read. He saw the forms of everything change in a universe without essences. Anything might become anything, given enough time.
Crow’s short neck had always prevented him from looking up. No birds he knew had ever looked up, but now he could. The sky was open to him. He looked up and understood that the answer to his unasked questions was there above his head. It had been there the whole time, scattered like salt on a table, glittering like the glass he hoarded in his nest, its brightness glimpsed only in a reflection he once saw on a winter lake. The stars had their own velocity; Crow could barely tell they were moving, but he could tell. Maybe it came at the right time, the message. The stars said: You need to quit thinking of trees. You need to stop looking for a green that doesn’t exist. You need to be patient, and live.
Crow came back to the city. It took him awhile. Once burned, as they say. He said to himself, They hear what they want to hear, see what they want to see, pretend nothing happened. And yet, I think I can handle it. The problem was, Crow remembered. In truth, Crow remembered everything. No one he knew paid attention to anything he or they themselves said, but for some reason, Crow felt compelled to hold them to it, every last claim or boast or soon to be abandoned position. To remind them. I mean, who listens? Is that a crime? Crow, you can be such an asshole sometimes.
Crow felt he was the last of this kind, cursed with memory. He remembered how suddenly and completely everyone he knew had vanished from the streets and skies. He thought of it that way rather than “died” or were wiped out. Some avian flu or West Nile or who knew what. It was mostly rumor, but the devastation was real. He didn’t use the word holocaust. It had been a black city, elegant, formal, wised up. But Crow saw his friends drop from the sky, pitch out of their nests, disappear into thickets with the instinct of the damned. Crow shunned their places of congregation, harmless pleasures after all but harmless no longer, to sit on a wire or gather in the tall trees of the park to make fun of the various animal populations and generally stir things up. Crows eyed each other suspiciously, always with the unspoken question: Are you sick? And the corollary: How do I know I’m not? The answer to both was not long in coming. The most beautiful and flamboyant were the first to disappear. They seemed so frivolous once, but now Crow felt utter despair at their absence.
He grew weary of reciting the names of friends gone, but he did it as a form of exorcism, or penance: Heckel (with his put-on Brooklyn accent), Jeckel, EAPoe (who loved to pretend he was a raven), Jim Crow, Old Crow, Morgan Freeman, Tedford Hughes, Joe Cuervo, Gilo Pontecorvo, the list went on and on. Once he took a feather from a dead bird’s wing, risked infection, and kept it.
Crow went out only at night. He avoided everyone and those old pleasures, not out of fear but out of a sudden sense of dignity. Any intimate act was unthinkable. Thwarted nature was a phrase he repeated. He put by shiny things. He cursed his own failures and every insignificant or false word he had ever spoken.
At the time, it was infuriating that so many were untouched and oblivious. Crows are not invisible! became a sort of battle cry. He would harangue heedless orioles, combative jays, even hummingbirds – they had the attention span of a gnat. “Don’t you see what’s happening? These are birds just like you!” He just wanted to shake them the fuck up, banish the sweetness of their lives with the taste of affliction.
Good luck with that. A tree full of sparrows chirped, “It’s not our fight.” And, “You must have had it coming.”
At his low point, Crow recited a poem he heard somewhere that fit his sepulchral mood:
put it inside nothing,
add nothing to it,
and to prove it doesn't exist,
squash it flat as nothing with nothing…
It felt like a lullaby, but Crow did not let it hush him to sleep. He refused to lie cataleptic. He picked a fight with a hawk in Prospect Park. When disease hit the streets, they generally kept away. Empty environmental niches weren’t good for them. But this one’s equanimity pissed Crow off. It could have ended very badly, which was exactly what Crow wanted. Suicide by bird. But the hawk put a talon on Crow’s neck and looked down at him like Mister T, like he was a pitiful fool. “Hasn’t anybody talked to you about survivor’s guilt?” he asked.
Crow left the city, never to return, he thought.
Crow came back.
He answered questions with the phrase “upstate.” (That wasn’t strictly accurate. He spent the entire time, however long it was, between Gurney’s Inn and the Montauk Lighthouse. He might have been there for the duration, a beautiful empty stretch of grass and dune, and every morning it was like the light touched there first of all places in the world. But one day he decided to cruise Bridgehampton, and when he came back, the beach was leveled, and the McMansion was half up. The next lot was already marked out. He had no choice but to move on, and the city might be the only place where he could sustain disappointment. He knew it.) This time, he was determined to keep his eyes open. Shy away from nothing. Yes, he felt the loneliness of knowing no one and being known by no one. True invisibility. But the places to roost, he had forgotten how thrilling they could be. He sat on a window ledge on the twenty-fourth floor of the Chrysler building and felt the sun descend the building’s skin in the early morning. He bore witness to light on the water from the wing of an X-15 on the deck of the Intrepid. Traffic flowed along Broadway like a molten river, and he followed it until he was exhausted, came to rest on the statue of Christopher Columbus. The park was woven of green and brown beyond the limit of his sight. Who needed the Matterhorn, the Eiger or K-2? (Were there crows in Tibet? He wasn’t at all sure. Definitely in China.) He ascended straight up along the face of the Freedom Tower until the air began to thin and the currents no longer sustained him. He needed bigger wings! Infinitely wide, so that he could float as if he were nothing, all mind, one with that force that scarcely noticed cities and taunted them with fierce weather. Crow could see it all; he knew how everything worked. He heard the infrastructure complain and sensed the real estate deals being made. Whenever we are in the city, he thought, we want a bigger city.
At last, Crow, the damaged one, had everything, needed no one. The sun burned his wings, melted their waxy blackness. Careful Crow! A bird, too, can fall like Icarus, in a cloud of feathers, or burn like the phoenix into nothing and myth.
Crow carried the memory of this pure transparency with him.