“Yes, it’s true // that I multiply like a queen”: Twinning in Shelley Wong's Rare Birds
by Allison Pitinii Davis
Shelley Wong’s Rare Birds (Diode Editions, 2017) ends with an invitation and begins with “Exit Strategist.” The speaker escapes in the opening poem—“I walk the plank, I’m off / this ship—”—and when she reemerges in "Self-Portrait as Frida Kahlo,” she has transformed not only into Kahlo but an assortment of forms: “They call me a bird” and “I am the horse that runs.” To keep up with this speaker requires that we navigate a collection of escapes, transformations, and twinnings.
Including “Self-Portrait as Frida Kahlo,” roughly half of the poems in the chapbook are spoken as Kahlo and/or draw from her biography. Six poems are written “as Frida” or “as Frida Kahlo” and two poems (“Dear Frida” and “Epithalamium”) are addressed to her. “Dear Frida” contains the lines “You have me tangled / in flower names /… / We are twinned.” To better explore this twinning, I examined Kahlo’s art, life, and writing as recorded from 1944-54 in The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait (Abrams, 2005).
Rare Birds: noisy birds, fingers / in the hair, pigeons’ nests / a rare understanding of / human struggle simplicity / of the senseless song / the folly of the wind in my / heart
The words “Rare Birds” appear in proximity in Kahlo’s diaries: “noisy birds /… / a rare understanding.” In addition to the title, birds appear throughout Wong’s collection:
“Exit Strategist”: “One bird, one way out.”
“Self-Portrait as Frida Kahlo”: “They call me a bird, / but I rust”
“The Woods”: “I peacock // into a spiral sequence” and “Women teeter / in bird of paradise pose.”
“Epithalamium” (to Frida): “A dove and an / elephant, they murmur” [Kahlo’s parents reference to Kahlo’s and Rivera’s marriage]
“Furlough”: “your elbow back like an electric wing”
“Ghost Bird”: “(text from a scientist’s explanation of the euthanization of a male moustached kingfisher, a rare bird)”
“Salt”: “My spirit animal / is a bird, but not a seagull.” and “Maybe I’m an ibis, maybe I’m a swan.”
“After Mayflower in the rose garden”: “a cormorant / extended its wings like a bat”
“Her Still Lives” (as Frida Kahlo) “My banana / bird soldier is always // ripening.”
“Dear Frida”: “Let the parrots loose / when you hear his fist / against your locked door.”
“Prayer” (as Frida Kahlo): “You make me a widow, / a dark bird strung on a wire.”
“White Rabbit” (after Then She Fell): “She asks ‘How is a writing desk like a raven?’ / ’Feathers’ I reply”
“In the Hot-Air Balloon”: “as an illusion // of a winged thing / when all I want is / collision.”
In the above examples, birds (or wings) imply movement. Birds appear in opposition to rust, elephants, collision, and male fists against locked doors. They are connected to ripening and escape and used as verbs (“I peacock / into”). The exceptions to this pattern are significant—the motionless writing desk is like a raven because “feathers,” a widow is like a wire-strung dark bird, and perhaps most significantly, the title “rare bird” appears in the note of the poem “Ghost Bird”: “(text from a scientist’s explanation of the euthanization of a male moustached kingfisher, a rare bird).” The poem is an erasure—brackets note where words have been cut from the original account. This erasure reads less like a silencing and more like an attempt to free the kingfisher—each [ ] seems like a place for the silenced kingfisher to escape the narrative being assigned to it.
While the collection uses nature symbolically, it simultaneously appears to want to free the birds from the collection’s own usage of them. Likewise, the use of persona and twinning in the collection does not conceal or erase the speaker. It provides a [ ].
Reading these texts together, I encountered parallel themes and symbols. The following cento (which continues throughout the review) highlights parallels and “twinnings” within the texts by alternating lines from Rare Birds (in bold) and The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait (Barbara Crow De Toledo and Ricardo Pohlenz translation).
We are twinned.
I tell you, your eyeball is / my eyeball
Everything is not quite so matchy-matchy.
We are the / same as we were and as we will / be. Not counting on idiotic destiny.
What remains in my memory are / our common silences.
Mine was a strange world / of criminal silences
I was once / caught in my own silence / the sharp circle.
I'll try out the pencils / sharpened to the point of infinity
The emphasis of twinning in Rare Birds also appears in Kahlo’s diary. In her discussion of the origins of her 1939 double self-portrait “The Two Fridas,” she describes an imaginary friend that she “followed…in / every movement and while she / danced, I told her / my secret problems.” Both the speaker of Rare Birds and 1939-era Kahlo are moving past difficult relationships, and their twinning seems to provide support. In “Dear Frida,” the speaker understands even loneliness as shared and thus surmountable: “We’re not savages because / who isn’t lonely?”
Language and titles also twin in Rare Birds. There are poems titled “Still Life in Red and Black” and “Her Still Lifes.” The repetition of “still” expands the word into its multiple meanings of motionless and enduring—it is still still. A portrait of life continuing: “still life.” Wong’s word play keeps opening and shifting language so we are always meeting twinning at a new angle. She describes her own composition process in “The Woods,” and fittingly, the language repeats and expands: “It’s twisted like how I make lines, / branch over branch.” Titles repeat to form themes: “The Fall Forecast” and “The Spring Forecast.” “In the Hot-Air Balloon” is foreshadowed by a line in “The Woods”: “Don’t be pissed // when my hot-air balloon / gets tangled in your tree.” The mangos unpeeled by a lover in “Spectrum” return to the mango tree in “Valentine,” a poem in which “the mailman / walks backwards” and actions are reversed—the lovers move backwards through their relationship until they do not know each other. As if gravity was reversed in the collection, what goes down must go up.
imperialism -fascism - religions - stu- / pidity - capitalism
They want women to wear Europe
above all North / America - (U.S. and/England)
Fly your flags, see if / that saves anyone.
Both writers explore racism and imperialism. In “To Yellow,” the speaker separates the color from the slur: “You suffer / for that which you should not / be named for: my skin, my people” and “Dear yellow, / you have never covered / my body.” The end of the poem reclaims self-definition: “My tribe is rising. We are the new names, / the ones we have always known.” In her diary, Kahlo places herself in a Communist collective: “I am only a / cell in the complex revolutionary mech- / anism of the peoples.” She aligns herself with “Soviets – / Chinese - Czecho- / slovakians - Poles – united / in blood to me. And to / the Mexican Indian.”
In “The Spring Forecast,” the speaker cries, “Come out, come out, / ripest peach, offwhite leader.” The search for this leader ebbs in and out of a series of quintets. In one of the most formally exhilarating moments of the collection, strings tighten back with the line:
Doors flung open
to receive gold arrows.
(stringing the strings)
Skirts flare into bells. Hair
The stanza blossoms forward with the force of the flowers. The following poem, “After Mayflower in the rose garden,” critiques imperialism. The progressive blossoming of “The Spring Forecast” is set against a flower of privilege: “Many-petalled ship whose sea was never braided with thorns: // who discovers? Did it take a long knife / or a detonation?”
Oh dear, // I left my dream girl in the woods.
Tree of Hope / stand firm! / I'll wait for you—
Don’t shake the fire tree / if you shiver at sparks.
Don't let the tree get / thirsty it loves you so much.
Both texts burst with colorful, fruit-laden love (and loss) poems. The eroticism in Rare Birds peaks in back-to-back poems “The Concert” (as Frida) and “Still Life in Red and Black” (as Frida):
a sweet tree, her ripeness
trembles in gentle
little deaths, as she
returns to me, split
pomegranate— (“The Concert”)
mark you as claimed,
that I am,
I press into your
thighs and suck
. . .
your mouth with seeds
and paint you
in the morning when
the apple crawls
with ants (“Still Life in Red and Black”)
Compare to the mouth of Kahlo’s lover in her diary:
There was all manner of fruits
in the juice of your lips, the blood
of the pomegranate, the horizon
of the mammee and the purified pineapple.
In Rare Birds, men often appear as a threat behind closed doors: In “Courtship” a man knocks on the speaker’s door and asks if she is “decent.” She replies “‘Always,’ sincere and / and mildly appalled.” In “Dear Frida,” the speaker tells Frida that Diego’s love for her is conditional: “He approves of your dresses / when your skirts turn // into a temple.” The speaker’s advice? Sic parrots on him when he comes to the locked door.
In my cento, the line “Tree of Hope, stand firm!” (Árbol de la Esperanza, mantente firme) is from Frida’s diary, and it also references the song “Cielito Lindo” and the title of Kahlo’s 1946 painting, another double self-portrait. In the painting, one Frida is suffering on a gurney while the other Frida holds a back brace and a flag painted with the hopeful song lyrics. The twinning implies a liberation—a doubling of the self as a means of enduring. The painting and Rare Birds ask us to consider the ways in which all art is a “twinning” of its creator(s)—art as a space where artists can explore and radically affirm selfhood. Wong’s and Kahlo’s intersectional feminist works are lush with selves—as the speaker says in “The Woods,” “Yes, it’s true // that I multiply like a queen.”
Allison Pitinii Davis is the author of Line Study of a Motel Clerk (Baobab Press, 2017) and Poppy Seeds (Kent State University Press, 2013), winner of the Wick Poetry Chapbook Prize. She holds an MFA from Ohio State University and fellowships from Stanford University’s Wallace Stegner program and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She will begin her doctoral studies at The University of Tennessee starting Fall 2017.