Birds and birds at night

On care and caring
Matthew Goulish

Matthew Goulish co-founded Every house has a door in 2008 with Lin Hixson. He is dramaturg, writer, and sometimes performer for the company. His books include 39 microlectures – in proximity of performance (Routledge, 2001), and The Brightest Thing in the World – 3 Lectures from the Institute of Failure (Green Lantern Press, 2012). His essays have appeared most recently in Richard Rezac Address (University of Chicago Press, 2018) and Propositions in the Making – Experiments in a Whiteheadian Laboratory (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020). He teaches in the Writing Program of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. 

Two Birds by Lin Hixson

A recording of Matthew Goulish reading Birds and Birds at Night accompanies this text. This recording is made available as another form of encounter and for those that prefer or need to listen, or listen while reading.
Sound recording engineered by Callum Grant

1. Downy Woodpecker

Mary joined nearly 45 minutes late – a new rectangle flickering into the array, edging the rest of us aside. When her picture illuminated, unlike the fourteen faces and foreheads, Mary’s form sat small and far in the frame, in a corner armchair between bookshelves. She looked something like James McNeill Whistler’s 1871 canvas Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, better known by its colloquial name of Whistler’s Mother.

“Hi Mary, welcome to the meeting,” said the Program Chair.

“HELLO!” Mary yelled from across the room.

“People have been relating something of their experiences of teaching online,” the Chair continued. “Would you like to tell us about your semester? I heard from many of your students how much they enjoyed your class and the approach that you took.”

“I have no idea why they would have said that!” shouted Mary. “It was a disaster!”

After an awkward pause, the Chair steered the conversation back to its previous topic: another nervous collective speculation on the subject of the future.

“Oh wait!” Mary yelled, again interrupting. “The woodpecker!”

“Excuse me?” the Chair inquired politely.

“That must have been what the students enjoyed so much.”

“Would you like to tell us about that?” asked the Chair. The faces in their rectangle, mine included, went leaden, signifying what passes for attentiveness on a video conferencing platform.

“In the middle of class a downy woodpecker hit the window and fell unconscious. I had to bring it into the house and nurse it back to life. Did you know, it takes three hours for a woodpecker to recover after flying into a window like that? I had to stop everything. We cared for it together over Zoom. That’s probably what the students remember. Absolutely nothing to do with the class!”

“What happened to it?” asked the Chair.

“It woke up!” shouted Mary from her corner. “It looked around! I took it outside! It flew away! The end!”

2. Northern Mockingbird

A coil of ribonucleic acid bunched and nested in a lipid shell spiked like the underwater mine we assembled as children alongside the model submarine. Melt away the fat shield with twenty seconds of soap heat water alcohol, the protein string disintegrates, its killer code with it. Fragile but not as fragile as we are, we humans, with our weary innocent cells that this viral executable technology may succeed in reprogramming.

One of us infected brought the sickness home and recovered only to see it claim his father. Lockdown reduced traffic increasing high-speed collisions. One of us visits her husband in his hospital daily waiting for his eyes to move. One of us needs to relearn how to walk, how to decode sounds after brain trauma – the sonic problem of the dryer spinning laundry, symphonic in an echo chamber. This partially lists disorientations rupturing only my small circle. I put the book down again and again: writing overflowing with pain and beauty. Each of the twenty-two lines begins with one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in sequence, commencing with the Aleph of How… – so thorough a lamentation in language encoded. How lonely sits the city that was full of people. Care cure curate creation sickbed grieve. How like a widow has she become.

April 2nd, 2020: Here in Chicago, forsythia has blossomed in bright yellow flowers. One can see purple crocus sprouting, and magnolia trees have large furry buds. Most notable for me: the migrating Northern Mockingbird has returned, with the male’s non-repeating nocturnal song – the only bird that sings at 4AM – usually under a streetlight or safety light, or possibly a bright moon. The mockingbird compiles sounds that it hears and mimics them, stringing them together in a long run of non-repeating notes. You may find the sound a disruptor of sleep because of its piercing quality, unpredictable phrasing, and irregular time-signature. How can we call it a song if it has no structural repetition? This intelligent bird returns to the exact place every year. We have one that likes a light near our house on N. Hoyne Avenue. I heard him in the early hours the past two mornings.

“…the very quotidian labor of a conviction…”

After nine years we found a ladder tall enough. We replaced the burned out outdoor bulb. On its photosensitive switch it lights the garden through the night. The mockingbird adopted it, moving in from the sidewalk tree under the streetlight. He sings now close outside our window, his alien cadence, his broken wild elation in the stillest silent hours.

3. Owl of the late style

On April 18th, Alan Cleaver of Whitehaven, Cumbria, tweeted:

Living next to a pub, I’m used to late-night revellers shouting but what really annoyed me was the chap who would imitate an owl hoot around 2.30am every night. Now pubs are shut I realise the hooting still goes on and it’s not a drunk. It is actually an owl.

In 1212 in the hills of Hino, Japan, the recluse poet Kamo no Chōmei wrote:

Sometimes I stir up the buried embers of the fire, making them my companion in an old man’s wakeful night, or I delight in the voice of the owl, since there is nothing fearful about this mountain.

A footnote by the translator Burton Watson to this line from the essay Record of the Ten-Foot-Square Hut informs us that it refers to a poem by another poet that speaks of a remote mountain and “the fearful voice of the owl.”

Consider what I will call the late style as it appears in the works of artists who understand that these will be their final gestures – but not only then. One finds it in the work of writers of any age who have “lived through” difficult events. Yet writing in the late style often speaks of those difficult events only indirectly. I intend a meaning distinct from the alienation invoked by Theodor Adorno in his famous use of this phrase. I am speaking of arriving at last at a condition of receptivity to the world as poetry, of acceptance of its ephemerality, of approaching it through care and mourning. The smallest gesture or phrase, precisely rendered, carries expanses of connotation, of association. The writer holds that history lightly, trusting that very little can communicate a great deal. Watson’s thorough footnotes elucidate Kamo no Chōmei’s many embedded, enfolded quotations. The late style does not mind if you do not know every reference, like the line about the owl and fearfulness; how could you? Paradoxically, the late style speaks as if with the innocence of a youthful voice.

One has a sense that the voice of the late style has given up everything except what is most essential. It is like in the autumn. After summer has completely withdrawn, but before winter has begun its descent, all of nature reduces itself to its bones. In the autumn, one can briefly see the structure of the world. That condition comes to resemble youthfulness or even childhood. Innocence and experience find their meeting place in a shared sense of discovery.

At the foot of the mountain is a rough shack where the caretaker of the mountain lives. He has a little son who now and then comes to visit with me. If I have nothing particular to do, my friend and I go off rambling. He’s ten and I’m sixty, so we’re far apart in age, but we seem to enjoy the same sorts of things.

The late style does not concern age only, but a doubling of everything. Every statement, every image, every turn of phrase, both rings like a bell of simplicity, spoken for the first time, and evokes a memory, or set of memories, of all that it recalls, spoken for the first time once again.

Kamo no Chōmei refutes the characterization of the owl’s voice, out on the night mountain, as fearful. In emptying his hermit life of so much, he has opened a space large enough for a mountain to take up residence. He delights in his companions – they are his only possessions now, and he has a wealth of them. Or, a better way to say it, the essay shows us how relations, companionships, remain the only truly concrete and enduring elements of our lives. He wrote the essay in order to praise them.

4. Epilogue: aviary

“Let it be madness to ask forgiveness of the birds…” Another monk spoke these words, Alexei Karamazov’s mentor, the Elder Zosima, the spiritual heart of Dostoevsky’s novel, perhaps of all his writing. “My young brother asked forgiveness of the birds: it seems senseless, yet it is right, for all is like an ocean…”

Some believe that life becomes worth living when we find something worthy of praise, and then devote our lives to praising it – praising in the most appropriate way, in the way that can be heard, and that draws other people into its circle. This fragile “we” recognizes itself in shifting terrain. No words exist for how gently we must treat one another. “Spoke a flower inside her flower’s telling – spoke corpse of grief – spoke infinite.” Speak of the entwinement of grief and praise. Seek inside each moment, the collective regeneration that cannot issue from isolation. A petrichor smell infuses once-dry earth after rain. “Now that I’ve reached the age of sixty, when life fades as quickly as dew…” Every morning a lifting; every evening an owl’s flight. I offer the final lines of Ed Roberson’s first poem, be careful.

i must be careful not to shake
anything in too wild an elation. not to jar
the fragile mountains against the paper far-
ness. nor avalanche the fog or the eagle from the air.
of the gentle wilderness i must set the precarious

A later poem, Flock Life, describes its subject this way:

squalling patterns, the dash, the lilting shapes
just happen out of their correction for

each other’s shifts almost as if
forgiveness is to fly.

A delicate and deep attention in the face of the world configures and concludes. I walk through the darkened house. It must be a full moon that casts a luminous trapezoid through the window’s glass onto the wood floor for me to step into as one would a pool. All who have been lost return. Be careful not to lose your measure, they whisper, nor track of us. How many people have I met in my life? Every one a compass, bringing me back to myself. These birds in their brevity, their visitations, let us praise them, to grieve, to find forgiveness. They have left the sky-blue egg of a fragile future in our care.


Source notes and gratitude


The Lamentations of Jeremiah, verse 1.

“…the very quotidian labor of a conviction…”

Édouard Glissant, Sun of Consciousness, translated by Nathanaël. New York: Nightboat Books, 2020, p. 70.


Alan Cleaver: @thelonningsguy

Kamo no Chōmei, Record of the Ten-Foot-Square Hut, (1212), translated by Burton Watson. Boston and London: Shambhala, 1994.


Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1990, p. 319.

“Spoke a flower … spoke infinite”

Andrea Rexilius, Afterworld. Ottawa, Ontario: Above/Ground Press, May, 2020.

Ed Roberson, be careful, from Just In: Word of Navigational Challenges: New and Selected Work. Jersey City, New Jersey: Talisman House, p. 1.

Ed Roberson, Flock Life, from To See the Earth Before the End of the World. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, p. 115.

I am grateful for correspondences through spring and summer of 2020, with the students of Poetics of the Ordinary in The School of the Art Institute of Chicago BFA Writing Program and Teaching Assistant Laura Meyer, as well as with friends Will Daddario, Sami Hussein Ismat, Cynthia J. Ashby, and Morgan Eldridge.