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Adrift in a World of White

A review by Rick Wright

Broken Wing, by David Budbill

Green Writers Press, 2016

212 pages—softcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14839

Diversity, alas, is still not our strong suit in North American birding. There are a few encouraging signs: Women, people of color, and members of other historically under-represented groups are slightly less scarce in the field than they once were, and their voices have gained a greater prominence of late in magazine articles, blog posts, and memoirs—all, note well, more or less journalistic modes of writing. David Budbill’s novella Broken Wing is the first attempt I know of to deploy a fictional protagonist who is a black birder, and to illustrate in that figure’s experiences the isolation and disorientation still today undergone by those who are not granted the automatic privilege others are born to.

Broken Wing can be read as a simple, straightforward allegory. The title character is a Rusty Blackbird. Mauled by a free-roaming cat and unable to make the migration south from the bog where it bred, Broken Wing is fed and briefly sheltered by the book’s principal human figure, The Man Who Lives Alone in the Mountains. Fleeting as their interaction is, The Man—he has no other name—develops a great fondness for the bird, a sympathy arising from his own deeply felt displacement from his southern home to the cold and snowy north. The Man is a musician—a bird in a way—who, for reasons never stated, no longer plays the jazz he once loved—he is rusty. He is also black, an identity only hinted at in most of the text but made clear in Donald Saaf’s charming illustrations and tentatively affirmed in the books’ final chapter. The Man himself draws the obvious parallels between his existence and the bird’s: both are alone and separated from others like them, both are subject to erroneous preconceptions (the blackbird is at first misidentified as a grackle), both are wounded and hoping to heal.

All that is so transparent as to be pedestrian, hardly worth the effort to write or to read. But Budbill, a distinguished American poet, is up to much more here.

The literary genre known as the novella has a single, rather unusual purpose: to oblige the reader to question the text’s credibility and her own ability to assess it. The novella aims to produce not coherence but uncertainty and critical disorientation, intentionally leaving the reader at a loss to distinguish the (fictional) truth from a narrator’s deceptions. At its most trivial, this epistemological anxiety can be treated as nothing more than a puzzle—who really dunnit? Weightier efforts in the genre exploit the capacity to disconcert for more sophisticated ends.

One tried and true device the authors of novellas use to undermine the reader’s certainty is the narrative frame, in which one story is “nested” inside another; the move from one narratorial voice to another, from one fictional past to another, from one set of connected events to another unsettles the reader and casts doubt on the text’s reliability.

Budbill fits his novella into a series of frames, a structure wittily, winkingly alluded to in the “four-story birdcage” that ornaments The Man’s living room. The outermost, introductory frame is a set-up, cartographically precise in its matter-of-fact realism as the unnamed narrator directs us to a remote mountain cabin and invites us to hear the story to be told by its sole resident. Readerly confidence quivers slightly when we are told that the name of the eremitic figure is The Man Who Lives Alone in the Mountains, then teeters on the edge of collapse when we turn the page to find The Man telling his story about himself in the third person. And this story is itself a frame, into which The Man inserts yet more stories and story fragments in the form of poems and letters to a musician friend back in the city.

When The Man’s narrative eventually falls into chronology, the reader feels pulled back from the abyss—but just for that moment before we’re told that a full 35 pages of the story, recounting Broken Wing’s recovery and family life over a year and a half, were nothing but a dream, a dream that itself provides a frame for other anecdotes told in letters to the same city friend. Cast back into bewilderment, we are forced to ask what has really happened and what not, and how, or whether, we can tell the difference, questions whose answers are made even more elusive in the book’s final chapter, written in the voice of yet another narrator: this narrator, a man who with his wife has built a house on the mountainside site occupied decades earlier by The Man, recounts his discovery of a manuscript enclosed in an envelope wrapped in butcher paper wrapped in canvas sealed in wax inside a steel box in a niche in a ruined cellar wall. Frame after frame after frame, and small wonder that the finder begins to doubt his own role and his own credibility.

What is the point of this hopelessly tangled series of narrative recursions? It is possible, I suppose, that Broken Wing is meant only as a formal display, that the author is simply showing off his skill in creating an almost unnecessarily complex mise en abyme. But I believe that David Budwill cast his reader into a bottomless pit of confusion for a more substantive reason. The experience this novella offers its readers replicates on a smaller but no less authentic scale the circumstance in which the bird and The Man find themselves, seeking and not finding solace, certainty, healing, and re-integration into a world, narrative or otherwise, that seems irreparably fractured by violence and hate.

It is no accident that the visual world of Broken Wing is black and white. Most of the narrative matter is set in a snowy landscape, and the birds that most captivate The Man are Broken Wing and a gang of gleaming black Common Ravens; one of the most striking images in the book is the scene of ravens plucking slices of white bread from the snow and stacking them in their ebony bills. We come quickly to understand that The Man, too, stands out in his white surroundings, where he is greeted at best with polite uninterest and at worst with ignorance and aggression.

Those same colors, of course, dominate the literal visual landscape of reading, where we follow the printed black line across fields of creamy paper in search of meaning. By frustrating that search, David Budbill leaves us as “stranded, abandoned, alone” as The Man and his Rusty Blackbird friend, hinting with words at the experience of living on the wrong side of a world divided by prejudice.

Rick Wright leads birds and art tours in Europe and the Americas for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. 

Recommended citation:

Wright, R. 2018. Adrift In A World of White [review of Broken Wing, by David Budbill]. Birding 50.1: 65-66.

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