Jed Munson | Contributing Writer
The following is an excerpt from the final and titular essay of Jed Munson’s new essay collection Commentary on the Birds, out now with Rescue Press.
Those birds erupting from the chimney last summer, you remember, O, when I visited you in Ann Arbor, tail between my legs, cursing the city. Two thousand and twenty. Years ago. We were walking around at dusk like we used to in the driveway, in Wisconsin, in two thousand and two.
Bats—I thought—wild—it felt like wildness then, wilderness as outside. Me feeling as guilty for how well I’d just slept, so relieved to be back in the suburbs—writing things like, What / commendable engineering that I might / Sleep so soundly / while so many lists could be made / Of places less quiet—as I was relieved to have slept at all, to be there with you. But the feeling, like sleep, is capsuled now, lost in grip. It was commotion or it was conference. It was chatter, grammar. Quotation. Self-duration. Was gone as it was happening. It was never. We were together, remember, dissolving the variable.
Everything I write is at once attempting connectivity, integration of instances of imagination, while also trying to act as a firebreak for the previous thing and the next—insurance, I imagine, against the past and the future, the threat of one piece’s pitfall burning down the whole range.
The risk of distinction, of course, being the relative ease of extinguishing the distinct. Of overcontrolling burning’s outcomes.
I force a gap. Spark-like. To breathe.
But it feels like forcing breathing.
I both dread and yearn for writing to end. The bottoming of the line. There’s too much I’ve not said while this ball of light lasts. Too many perched on the clothesline.
First a thesis, a point or two I wanted to make, then the border opened and I flew into its maw—“a project”—then the borders closed, the markers of hypotheticality snapped shut around me, 2 or 2,000 beaks in my mouth feeding me 2 or 2,000 worms, and what flew out were words, words became thoughts, the project of closing some loop emerged: to use the capsule of the year as a representation of the capsule I was exploring the loophole inside: the DMZ’s abundance of wildlife as a measure of the loss of habitable land that frames it. The DMZ as wilderness, so outside, but also a control, a time, a frame, an inside. The DMZ as firebreak and fuse. As precise measurement of what I can’t write. The precise instrument of measure.
Not can’t, I guess, but of what I no longer must.
The birds that come and go as perennial, universal visitors/muse/s.
The DMZ as host, as parasite, breaking the singular/plural. The DMZ as singular/plural. The DMZ as parallel/parallelable/parallelogram. Bendable. The DMZ as twist, a twist.
But when does commentary get done? Commentary can be as free as me and you talking. You mean, you letting me talk. That too. There’s the notion of public-facing writing, the myth of the interior working against me. How Korea was an inside for a year during pandemic. But an inside to what? America?
Who does this voice I’m just visiting implicitly address?
O is—no, as—your name, as your name and as apostrophe. Apostrophe as turning away, as well as turning towards. Addressing the rhetorical, the multitudes, the birds, as well as my sister. O as all and only.
O as O.
O, I should contemplate why translation suddenly came easily, why I worked so fiercely at night on an artist interview, of all things, when for so long there’d been such blockage at the merest of your suggestions that I try it on, like a hat, as an antidote to writing. I just entered the thing, it goes, because I wanted to imagine it in English, to get to know the conversation’s field of implications through the moment’s elongation through my exaggerated attention to it. Tabling, importantly, all discussion of ability. That was not in question in anyone’s mind, according to the transcript, is why I felt welcome, there were just two people talking in the words, as if it were the woods, despite it being about urban existence, there were only two people in the world and I was a presence overhearing them—never mind that the topic was concertedly beyond language, making the issue of language as if incidental to the task: the notions of human habits and recurrence, of tracing writing so “the aura of writing” emerges from stencils of intent.
Never mind that the charcoal drawings themselves crackled with an energy I received even mediated through a screen, their granularity merging with, counteracting, the screen’s glare: I was encountering, it felt, discrete representations of what I was seeing everywhere ambiently, a resting state of silent alarm.
To peer through a blizzard at a picture of a blizzard. Vision snowing on air, but also meaning something, finally, beyond mere visual information. What I experience as ambience, framed. The organ of the self, trained on the eye. Talked about with another persona. Connected to a shape. Calmed into being there.
Never mind the title of the interview was “위성처럼 돌고 도는 사람 사이의 만남을 그리다, ‘박찬국’”— “Draw meetings or encounters between people who, like satellites, orbit / circle / go around”—or something like that—which I collapsed into “Encountering Human Orbits, with Bak Chan Guk.”
Image as metaphor—that does the squinting for you, so your gaze can laze along, gleaning.
It’s like when I forgot to bring my glasses out to lunch one day—so I took a picture of the menu on the far wall and zoomed in, ordered off my phone.
As, the new is.
But has what’s been pictured been seen?
When your project is organized around loss—when loss organizes you—when your whole imagined community is, there is no doneness, only gone’s glow. The grasp is just a motion in freeze-time. The gaps gape together. There’s no middle to balance along, just a medium to experience, the gesture towards the activity of searching, of 고민revolving around absence. 고민: to suffer inside a heart, enclosed. To think hard. This starts to feel fleeting, like fleeing from the non-center, like uncentering, uncertainty, un-buckling-down, flight spiraling upwards, or like drilling for the center of the earth and finding huge air. Pure water. Gulps of strange old sounds you can’t read but can remember.
O, why sit around and talk about Korea?
Because these things are learned. We’re teaching each other.
When I say the DMZ’s countless scattered landmines take on a kind of collective, semiotic hum, I mean weather events scramble them, I mean poetic charge. Poetics and problematics scramble, scramble poetically, problematically. I mean the knowledge that they are there and could destroy my body registers in my body as an awareness that I am not there, that they are not acting on my body, my body is not an actor in their terrain.
I mean that by even conjuring them in words I am conjuring this awareness of them being there and not being here acting on my body. The conjuring feels ever so slightly like stepping out into an unmarked field where I am not.
I mean that when you lose something, one small thing in one small place, it exists suddenly everywhere in your effort to picture the last place it was yours, despite your knowing logically that it has been lost to a location as discrete as itself.
I mean that I have lost the war, my right to the war as anything but a distant hum I feel. Not a right to violence, but a right to feel the violence of loss, to participate in grief. I mean that when considering a charged landscape, finding images or metaphors—even using syntax—when it starts clicking into place, starts to feel a bit too much like assembling a semantic bomb. Or, more likely, another semiotic dud. The sentence like an act of willing detonation.
Or, more likely, diffusion.
I mean I followed cranes as a device, as a sort of literary technology, for like five years. 학 as both crane singular and cranes plural. As fictional beings, as tropes or symbols—I just followed them to literal places and they had control of my way. I could not walk into the DMZ but I could follow their migrations, I could waltz into the air. They organized my time, relationships, steps. Too much. Again, the new was. To the extent that when I saw them in the flesh in Cheorwon, there was that underwhelming thing, like seeing the Mona Lisa. Encountering, at long last, the cliché.
But then also this feeling of, oh, I followed a complete—I got to this very real situation, this literally liminal place. My perfect container.
So not the birds themselves. Not only. I was chasing images, see, I was the afterimage. Afterimage, the new fission. It was the bird people, people who love birds, who made me question my cause, the volunteerism of it all, the empire and its own version of mobility on the back of which I rode: was I one of those people or birds? You’re one of the people searching in the birds for a way to understand the movement. Yes and no, that was my confluence—and this is my comment—long ago, the movement was the only unit left.
I was working in several pairs.
Their confluence in my experience.
The artifice of writing. The organism of language.
The experience of their confluence in my writing.
The anywhere of metaphor. The anyway of image.
Their auras in the written.
A water bird—a smaller shore bird, I don’t remember its name, but it had a name, a personal one, I’m saying, not just the species name, which I can’t remember either—it was trying to cross the Yellow Sea. Dr. Lee was telling me about it on the way back from the CCZ. I think he was liberated from the need to think or talk about the cranes once we’d finally finished the count. He’d been quiet at first about all other birds, at least while he was busy driving and notating. We would see sparrows fly by, things dart across the paddy roads, and though he’d name them routinely, he wouldn’t properly hold forth. I’d later realize he’d just been screening things out categorically so he could focus. But once, after he’d put his clipboard away for the day, we went on this unplanned joyride where he started pointing at everything else. It was a gush of love he’d been holding in all morning. The whole world was new again, more ancient, more dying. More of that came on the way back to Seoul, that melancholy that birds so expressly emblematize—they feel like leaving itself—but the overflowing was also something specific to Dr. Lee as a conservationist who constantly watches the air and its numbers.
He was telling me the story of this bird that didn’t make it, that died mid-migration. By then I was speaking in Korean to him more and, I told you this, my questions for whatever reason were finally connecting, at least semantically. Before, in English solely, something with intonation, my questions weren’t registering as questions; they’d go comically or poignantly unanswered. Pure potential in the air. They were naturalized into silence, sort of, the statement of silence. Held there, as if in a queue.
The scientists were tracking it on a monitor, this little bird, as a dot on a screen, all the drama of the storm it was caught in mediated through that dot on the screen, the real bird only imagined: it went all the way across the Yellow Sea (or like ¾ of the way), got to a point where the winds were so strong that it was flying exactly in place, the dot stuck. They thought the tracker had glitched or it had died there but then the dot started moving east toward the peninsula. Seemingly the bird had decided to turn around. They were waving at it, waving it on from their control room, urging it the other way. Then, helpless to help it, they threw their voices to the windscreen, they started cheering for it regardless, just get to any shore, live! But what thing could make the trip twice? The whole sky, every pixel, pounding down. Once a bird that small hits the water and wets its wings, that’s it, it can’t fly.
What is ancillary to what? To be funded by the US government to sit in the Korean CCZ and observe migratory birds. To be a Korean migratory bird who landed in the US? To be stuffing birds with metaphor. Using image as metaphor, a rearview mirror, metaphor as image. To be indexing emotions that cannot seem to stand alone. To be marking where the field becomes text, where the text becomes an ecology.
What even is an essay?
Why is my right arm not the center of my body if I use it so much?
The confluence of practice and pretending is what?
My biggest fear is that I’m never writing, I’m method acting being a writer, sitting in these scenes.
But then sometimes you remember why you can’t stop: a bird pulls you back into the city under sonic siege. Snow feels lexiconic. Two doves alight on your window. It’s a sign, at minimum, that we’re awake.
I guess that’s where this ends, or this is where that ends, at the DMZ, in the scene I’ve been saving in my head, savoring it as an image because it could be languageless there, in image, pure potential, airborne, but also, the end is the only thing that happened in the CCZ that felt like an event that stood for itself. I performed no actions besides letting leaving happen. All I did was stand at the edge of the reservoir as night fell, at the edge of myself, aware of the soldiers watching on, to make sure we didn’t take out cameras—but making me ever-aware of the soldier I never was—and observe as the man I called “teacher” in Korean for lack of an alternative, stood a few paces in front of me with his hands lifted skyward, as if in praise, approximating the multitudes of geese that had suddenly, exactly at the time he predicted, appeared overhead, bursting over a small ridge behind us. It was a current of wild in the Civilian Control Zone. An outside rushing in. The forbidden state of image, exposed: his arms like a conductor’s, The Sky Conductor, like he was committing brushstrokes on a ceiling—the hundreds, thousands of them right over us, heading to their roost on the far side of the reservoir, the ducks in the water, too, as if on cue departing, the water solidifying in the dark. How memory synapses into myth. Some of them flew so low it made me nervous, the soldiers behind us also marveled and laughed, others were so high I could only barely make out their lettered formations. How the Teacher counted them, I have no idea. I have good eyes, he’d said. The DMZ was just beyond us, the real one, just beyond the CCZ, its “aesthetic frisson,” the aura of its forbiddenness, granting the moment this hard, sure edge.
As for Teacher, The Sky Conductor, he was so many things in that moment to me watching, I called him brother—형—in my heart. So there I was, it was not just me, you were there in every tense. But if I visit just him in voice—a guy who’d been kind and conversational the few days I knew him, who’d humored my Korean, who’d explained the kickback of certain firearms and its consequence on a shoulder. A freelance wilderness guide, ten years my senior, a member of a conservationist coalition, an icosahedron approaching sphere: he was so many people to me the harder night fell, the more birds that came rushing over us—so many teachers I’ve admired—so many loves I couldn’t grasp—he was someone on an airport tarmac waving a baton—aircraft marshals, I think they’re called—but where was I? going where?—the painters I’ve pictured, the poets, the composers, the dishwashers, the construction workers, the delivery drivers—my cousins and old friends—he was stranded on an island waving for help. He was waving them on, the birds, like, “get out of here, save yourselves!” He was counting, as if plucking them out of the sky like coins, joking that he was collecting for every 500 geese, 500 won. He’d buy drinks with them later, for all of us. Would I join him? Was this confluence? Was he flapping his arms?
Jed Munson grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. His poetry chapbooks include Minesweeper (New Michigan Press/DIAGRAM, 2023), Silts (above/ground press, 2022), and Newsflash Under Fire, Over the Shoulder (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2021).