Jeffrey Alfier: Review of Larry D. Thomas

A Murder of Crows by Larry D. Thomas (Virtual Artists Collective)


Thomas Cover





                    When God was creating, the birds saw Adam in His thoughts.

                                  —Cathedrale de Chartes, north portal



Texas poet Larry D. Thomas is as keen an observer of the natural world as any of America’s best Regionalist poets, shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of David Wagoner, Richard Hugo, Walt McDonald, and John Haines. Pervading the heart of A Murder of Crows, Thomas’ sixteenth collection of poems, is an intensely rich, imagistic evocation of the life of birds, an articulate vision that enables the reader, through imaginative engagement, to cross into a phylogenic hinterland. The poems of the first section, “With Concentrated Grit,” are informed by the primal determinations of the smaller denizens of the realm of flight. The second section, “Eyeing the Gulf,” is a regional grouping of poems centered on the Gulf of Mexico, a group to make a great companion read, as parallel texts, with Thomas’ earlier volume of Gulf of Mexico poems, The Lighthouse Keeper (Timberline Press, 2001). Section III, “Tearing Out Hearts,” focuses on raptors. Section IV, for which the book is named, examines the much beleaguered, fabled species of crows. Throughout the book’s sixty-seven poems, Thomas employs knife-edge images that propel a negative capability that permits readers to perceive clearly the implications he unfolds before them, going about as Milton’s Adam in Paradise Lost did, forced to perceive God through his postlapsarian surroundings.

     So positioned, Thomas witnesses intractably arrant realities, a world re-inscribed in crisp, penumbral language, exemplified through such terms and descriptions as “darkness,” “shadow,” “midnight,” “blue-black,” “black angular presence,” “utter darkness,” “looms there in stark solitude,” “sonata of darkness,” “hearse,” “a world beyond the sun.” Even “a canvas of blue sky” is laden with a coal-black portent. One may even place Thomas alongside certain European Expressionists, particularly in their use of synaesthesia to merge or blur metaphoric borders of the senses, combining them in a single image—that deliberate creative expression, consciously developed by writers, particularly in the Expressionist and Keats traditions. We see this, for instance, in “Blackbirds,” their “…blue- / black cacophony / of terror, / a choir / of wildest eyes” (21), and likewise in the “savage cerulean scream” of the Golden Eagle, in “Raptor” (53).

     Thomas arrests us through an immersion in the sensual, often violent aesthetics of the sublime, an element that drives the intelligence of raptors and scavengers alike. In “Unabridged,” Thomas cites the crow’s “…genius / with a perfect IQ / of instinct” (71). Let it be known that Thomas has been eloquently evoking the sublime in verse for quite some time—see his recent work, Wolves (El Grito del Lobo, 2010), inscribed with linocuts from Clarence Wolfshohl. Here, wolves …“know / the innuendo / of terror…their canines, / each a gleaming / touchstone / of the world.” In "To Sight a Bunting" (16), this variety of passerine is plagued by starlings which "settle their voracious breasts / on straw still warm / from the slaughtered dead," the dead being the bunting fledglings murdered by the starlings and shoved from their nest.  To complement this scene, on the facing page we see the shrike, "...weighing in / at but an ounce / or to, / .../ impaling your prey / on barbs and thorns" (17).

     The artistry of such language traverses and melds with other art forms, thus offering the reader resonation across various mediums, particularly painting. In “Sanderling Chick,” the flurry of the bird’s legs immediately recalls to Thomas, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (25). Indeed, in “Great Blue Herons,” the opening lines, “They stand so still in the shallows / it’s as if they’re outgrowths / of the river itself,” hold a mirror up to Cubism’s intersecting surfaces (26). Thomas speaks even more directly to the painter in “Raven (oil on canvas by Otis Dozier),” noting the late artist’s apperception, “What life there is / is silent, solitary / against the vastness / of place, locked in the black, / angular presence of a raven” (56). Indeed, Thomas is quite skilled in ekphrastic poems such as “Raven”; moreover, among his recent work see The Skin of Light (Dalton Publishing, 2010).

     Thomas opens his compilation not with a grand raptor—they will come later—but with the lowly sparrow. Here, he turns any deceptively diminutive view of this pedestrian species on its head, pointing us to “…its world where survival / by the minute is enough,” this beast all-too often beholden of “…cold, hunger, or the brutal / amusement of a cat…” (3). In “With Nothing but Blue,” engaging images of a newly-deceased husband who one day fell “sudden as a box of books / dropped to a slab of concrete” form a backdrop to “the wild blue of the jays” against the blinding radiance of blue sky the surviving wife must now endure (4). Exploring the realm of birds more traditionally perceived as hunters and huntresses, in “Nighthawk” we witness in sharp affirmation the determination of “wild eyes / afire with starlight,” a “body a plumed missile hurtling earthward” to pull-up, after intercepting its airborne prey, in “a grand sweeping arc” (7).

     Similar to the sparrow, Thomas does not leave out the unexciting “Pigeons,” that bird so woven into human folklore. Thomas acutely renders the pigeon “The urban version / of the buzzard,” not flocking to tourists feeding them in a Venice square, but “embedded in the grills of SUVs;” and, at the sudden crack of a crushed pecan shell, departing a tree en mass, and beautifully so, in a “ravishing shrapnel of feathers” (8). “Pigeon Egg,” the companion poem on the facing page, shares a kindred imagery with “Pigeons” with its “bloody calculus” of hatchlings born on “desiccated clods of potting soil” (9). Such blood, moreover, is not simply a byproduct of the hunt, but an ingredient intrinsic to a predator’s survival, as we are reminded in “Preying for Rain” (45). Without a doubt, Thomas could have subtitled his book, “The Bloody Calculus.”

     A reminder that man shares in the birds’ ultimate destiny is “Inca Dove,” where a dead young bird is buried by Thomas’ wife, “loosing it / to the shadow we’re all headed for, / the black unraveling shadow / of a phoenix on extended wing” (10). Thomas opens this poem through an incisive syntactical apposition where “Dove” in the title contrasts quickly with the simile of “mean-spirited schoolmistress” in the first line. In “Yellow-rumped Warbler” we witness a desperate attempt to flee, “With concentrated grit” and “waves of weightless fury,” the cold ravages of winter flight, that is, for this bird, “torture / in the jaws of January” (11). “Terns” shows this species “whizzing / bullseye-bound / through the rosing void / of the firmament” on vectors as primal and irrevocable as any grand raptor in Thomas’ collection (28). In “Winged Gull” and “In Rowdy Reverence,” a synergy abounds; from the bucolic “canvas of blue sky,” gulls do their work “with breath reeking / of fresh fish-rot,” still “giddy in an epiphany / of soaring, the mindless blue” (36, 37). Likewise, the raven’s “Fetid breath fumes from his beak, / the price he pays for acumen / in the commerce of death” (55). As well, gulls, “winded from singing hosannas” descend to partake of “the vile devourment of offal” (34).

     As readers may well deduce at this point, wherever Thomas’ sense of the pastoral is evoked, it is a harsh one. When we read, in “Starlings,” that these birds “…descend / from the heavens / like shredded / midnight,” baby sparrows in their clutches, in order to “…drop them / to burst / like ripe figs,” we witness a pastoralism equal to that of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. Moreover, the juxtaposition of terror and beauty is Thomas’ forte, for both elements become a pact between opposites where artistic tension is created and where images are delivered so skillfully. In “Old Blue Jay,” the image of “the rosy fabric / of the dawn” is staged alongside a beautiful blue jay’s rage for eminence as it “leaves a trail / of scraggly feathers, / he could care less” about (5). Such is the dark fortitude that endures across the legacy of beauty and terror. In “He’s the Dark Mercury,” the ubiquitous crow is “sluicing / through the hourglass” of time, “jagging down the stave / of our ennui / with the thunderbolt / of fable,” while in “Crows in the Rain” we witness the bird’s “…integrity / of fabric / impervious to wind / and water” (68, 70).

     Survival-laden habits often jar us with their severity, like the Purple Martin mother that murders her young, “one by one, extending / with their deaths the feathers / of a sole surviving heir / who’ll one day take to the sky” his bloody lineage, his “resilient kind” (18). Similarly, the crow will be “content to turn / upon his nephew / for a meal” in “Both the Proposition and the Proof” (64. Also see “Unabridged,” 71). Even among gulls we suspect as passive laggards in the bird kingdom, there reigns an ominous vigilance born of deadly experience. We see this exemplified explicitly in “Eyeing the Gulf,” where gulls cannot afford to spare—lest their prey flee—“for one split second, / the bestial, / ocular excellence / of their guard” (38). This deadly experience is captured by Thomas in interesting ways, as in “Totem Crow” (74) where death seems to haunt even the simulacrum of a crow fashioned by the hands of men. Thomas also considers the sublime’s steeper ledge, the stalking ghost of extinction that lingers over the natural world. In “Ten Brown Pelicans,” his poet’s eye watches these species “…rowing the oars / of wings through the storm- / tossed sea of extinction,” (29) and suddenly we wonder if these creatures will go the way of millerbirds, or the pelican’s fellow sea mate, the Dusky Seaside Sparrow.

     Yet not all is the terror of the sublime, the starker realities of the hunt. There is, for Thomas and his readers, space to relish the beauty of birds. In “House Finch in Summer,” we behold the finch “never tiring of his antics, / as if relishing the air” (15). “Old Crow” is a celebration of the life and rustic splendor of longer-living birds abiding in blessed habitation, one “content to rattle / against the shell of odds / his tasty kernel / of longevity” (67). Yet we are continually reminded that this beauty thrives through stark realms of flight as beautiful as they are formidable. In “The Falcon,” we behold this raptor as “he suddenly plummets / to a speed of one / hundred-seventy-five / miles per hour,” to slam into his prey, literally snapping the battered victim from midflight (50). Thomas often speaks to a sense of anatomical and metaphoric duality in the fact that bird wings are hollow (pneumatized). Such hollowness is requisite for the birds’ aerodynamics, but it also harbingers fragility, one that brings them into the wider vanishings around them. Gulls, for instance, sit atop pilings that are strewn “like the posts / of a railless fence / vanishing seaward” (“Lone Gull,” 32).

     Confluent with beauty are spiritual echoes that cut across several poems, not in a full transcendental sense but in one that speaks to the junction of art and science. In “Above the Bait Stand,” gulls are “patient as pillars of salt,” recalling Lot’s wife gazing perilously back on the Cities of the Plain. Indeed, man is no independent observer, detached from the birds’ realm, and there are some interesting intersections here that Thomas speaks to. In “The Screaming, Actual Angel,” a gull becomes trapped in a church sanctuary, finally captured by a priest, the bird becoming “the actual angel / flung into the sanctuary / by the inscrutable hand of God” (35). The ancient insight, “For that which befalleth the sons of man befalleth beasts” (Ecclesiastes 3:19, KJV) thus becomes salient throughout Thomas’ work.

     As well, there are unexpected resonances with the world of men. In “Hawks,” the raptors’ airborne formation, spaced at intervals nature bred into them, is imagistically set alongside a man musing on the sleeping form of his adulterous wife, “her slow, guiltless breathing, / the aquiline silhouette” of her silent, recumbent form (49). In the same way, “Red-winged Blackbird” witnesses how Thomas’ verse is distilled from keen observations as he ponders the color schemes that resonate in the sensual components of the human psyche. Here, he speaks to the bird in its flight, noting how the “yellow epaulets” of this variation of blackbird are “searing the captive gaze of your lady” (13). Another deep trait observed by Thomas is the persistence, if not faith, of rituals. In “For Her Nest,” humans observe, near-incredulously, doves enduring “wind and violent thunderstorms” just two keep two hopeful “perfect stems” of grass for a nest, “as if her weightless, ledge- / clawed life depended on it” (14).

     In the end, Thomas is a full if not empathetic participant, and thus he—again like Milton’s Adam—becomes an emissary of mankind at large. Twice he speaks of burying dead birds in his or his wife’s proximity. In his wife’s case, she, “with the delicacy of fingers / tracing the curvature of a rosebud, / extricated the weightless corpse” of a Purple Martin. The male mate of the dead female “For days… / shadowed the spot where his mate was lodged” caught in the railing of the birdhouse they’d built (19).

     No simple poetic ornithology, Thomas’ verse treads far afield as he folds human lore into the history of his birds. One can witness the pride of chiseling the bark of the Chinese Tallow in “Hairy Woodpecker,” this folklore-laden bird “excavating a cavity” in its florid colors of “concupiscent cockiness” (6). In “ “Rain Bird,” “ Thomas celebrates the ancient American Indian belief that hummingbirds brought rain, “quenching corn thirst,” while “flashflooding arroyos” with color and downpours (12). In “A Dark Choir,” Thomas reminds us that ravens have, “For thousands of years / …haunted / human consciousness, / shuddering the quill / of poet and shaman” (57). On occasion, he will employ the scientific names of birds. This has the effect of casting certain birds in elegantly ominous terms. “Corvus Brachyrhynchos,” for instance, is the title used for a poem on the American Crow species, menacingly described by Thomas as a “Toothless / grinder of song / with the teeth / of saws” (66).

     Amid the scientific grounding, the poet finds yet a godlike quality to the purview of certain bird species. Thomas opens Section III of his book with the austere beauty of our national symbol, noting at the onset that “Everything that moves / is potential prey / as she has / no natural predator,” soaring in almost omniscient tones in surveillance over “everything that moves” (43). We find this same sense of omniscience in the owl that probes “…every atom / of the shadows” (44). A prime characteristic of such raptors is a pinpoint aim in hunting and capturing victims. For under a white-tailed hawk’s boresight “a mouse freezes, / holds its breath, / but blinks / its death knell” (46). Unlike the misty shores inhabited by Thomas’ gulls, raptors are often set in his verse against the chasmal blue of desert skies – “…a dome / of limitless, / unfaceted / sapphire.” Likewise, the falcon leaps “from the cliff ledge / into the blue / of pure belief” (63, 50).

     Thomas incisively closes-out A Murder of Crows with “Were I a Crow,” a poem where he ostensibly envisions his own immersion in the atavistic nature, and reified folklore, of crows. Yet, he is really yielding place to something intuitively deeper in the wide, dark psyche of mankind as we all mirror the beauty and terror of the bird kingdom. Larry D. Thomas is our John James Audubon, resuscitating in eloquent and moving verse our visions and perceptions of birds, from the common crow and seagull to the resplendent, rarely-seen eagle. His poetry bequeaths a durable vision of the unavoidably and intrinsically-linked lives of birds and mankind. Though expansive in breadth, Thomas leaves his enlivened readers to ponder yet the deep well of natural mysteries inhabiting the realm of birds. For those who want the best in poetry, Thomas is one who belongs on their bookshelves. I give A Murder of Crows my highest recommendation.



Jeffrey Alfier's poems have appeared recently in Connecticut River Review, South Poetry Magazine (UK), and  New York Quarterly. His chapbooks are Strangers Within the Gate (2005) and Offloading the Wounded (2010). A third chapbook, Before the Troubadour Exits, is forthcoming. Alfier serves as co-editor of San Pedro River Review.