Song birds, or oscine Passeriformes, with fixed song repertoires learn to sing in four steps. The steps are studied, in part, because, many linguists believe that these same four steps describe human acquisition.
In this essay collection collaged with photographs, migration lists, and ornithological instruction, Chelsea Biondolillo uses experimental form and scientific observation to dig into memory, trauma, and how our past informs our physical and emotional growth and migration. Broken into four parts that categorize steps songbirds take in the acquisition of their distinct vocalizations, Biondolillo plays with chronology and memory to interrogate familial and romantic relationships and what it means to find autonomy and make a home.
Critical Learning Period
The collection opens with Biondolillo attempting to remember the first years of her life when she and her mother lived with her father, and subsequently the moment she and her mother left. The essay, which begins with “Critical Learning Period” and follows the structure of the book as a whole, hints at trauma and the witnessing of abuse while questioning the lens of memory and how children process and internalize early experiences. Biondolillo switches between past and present, juxtaposing choices she makes as an adult with experiences she had as a little girl, especially her relationship with her father compared to a current lover. This first window into Biondolillo’s use of interesting form with complimentary content is powerful and sets the reader up for nontraditional windows into how Biondolillo works to question and catalog her development as a woman and the choices she makes to begin and end relationships, as well as the physical movement that inevitably accompanies those choices.
Biondolillo punctuates this first group of essays with a migration list—a timeline of her search for home and a map that offers a visual representation of her movement through memory within the text. Biondolillo gives her readers a guide to her book from the very beginning, asking them to observe this migration the way ornithologists might map the migration of geese. We know where she’s going, but the why and how of the migration is the bait that draws us in.
“How to Skin a Bird” is a beautifully woven braided essay that mixes instructions on skinning a bird for study purposes with the unsettling relationship Biondolillo had with her father, spending time at his home as well as with her paternal grandmother. The similarly unsettling skinning instructions paired with interactions with her father work to build an emotional, if not fully described, picture of what that relationship looked like and how that could be internalized by a woman trying to figure out her place in an ever changing landscape. Biondolillo writes, “You may be tempted to take your needle and thread and sew dozens of the smallest stitches you can, as though attention to detail could hide the hole you’ve made. Resist the urge. Everyone expects a hole in an empty skin.”
Biondolillo consistently brings us close to the action of a memory for a brief moment, and then backs away, never giving the reader too many specifics but rather focusing on the emotional understanding of a point in time. This backing away feels true to how memory operates and, when sharing space with the intense specificity of instructions on skinning a bird specimen, the reader is left with the uneasiness that difficult memories, however broad, create.
One of the most visually impactful essays in the collection, “The Story You Never Tell,” offers every page of text covered with Biondolillo’s personal photographs of various seashells. The few sentences that aren’t covered do little to tell the reader the content of the essay, and the hiding of text is a compelling representation of how memories can be blocked or suppressed. The visualization is unnerving and the inference of trauma heartbreaking. As in much of this collection, Biondolillo reminds us that sometimes what we don’t say is the most powerful.
Biondolillo’s interest in using form to compliment and highlight content is apparent in essays such as “Phrenology// an attempt” where footnotes and other texts collaged on the page add or parallel the essay’s progression. This gives the illusion of controlled chaos and drifting thought, an element which Biondolillo address to the reader directly when she writes, “I am looking for a way to get at the experience of a thing, the memory of it, to better understand the meaning of it. I am expecting the process to be messy.” Like the braided essays within the collection, this experimental form works to mimic memory in interesting ways and brings in outside texts in ways that feel in addition to her essay instead of apart of it.
Photographs and diagrams work similarly to mimic memory and add contextual and visual information. This idea of visual landmarks in both memory and migration appear often in this collection. In “With this Ring,” Biondolillo asks if these landmarks can be fluid rather than finite points in our memory. A tattoo is used as a representation of this struggle, in which Biondolillo writes, “A tattoo isn’t a stain or blemish, then, so much as a process. It doesn’t pin your skin down in time, but is a thing that changes, cell by cell the way everything else in the world does.” There’s hope in this realization. Even in the stamp of memory, how moments affect us can evolve and, in an act of grace, change.
Through the changing focus of relationships, memory, objects, and landscape, Biondolillo lands the collection on concepts of home—what it means to search for home and what it means to create one. Bird migration again becomes the lens through which the reader is exposed to Biondolillo’s need to recall and question her own movements, how she looks for and defines a home for herself, and how her past informs that development. In “Zugunruthe (Migration) II” she writes, “If I say that my compulsive fleeing from one place to another, from unassuageable heartache to heartache-to-be, is like a swallow flying year after year … it is so that I can find meaning in it, instead of shame.”
Biondolillo’s search for that meaning is intoxicating, this map of migration insightful and visually impactful in unexpected ways. Biondolillo’s collection defies traditional form constraints and instead pulses in fragments much like the sparks of memory. With the constant movement through place, careful attention to how ornithology can parallel human behavior, and the intimate moments of trauma and loss, Biondolillo weaves a textual and visual representation of how scientific observation and culled memory can lead us to a better understanding of why and how we move through the world, and hopefully, where we will finally land.
The Skinned Bird, by Chelsea Biondolillo. Hamilton, New York: KERNPUNKT Press, May 2019. 165 pages. $14.99, paper.
Christen Kauffman lives in Richmond, Indiana, with her husband and two daughters. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Willow Springs, Booth, The Cincinnati Review, DIAGRAM, and The Normal School, among others.