Owls and Artifacts of Memory

In a past that shouldn’t seem as distant as it feels, my father and I traveled the woods together. I walked beside him as he pointed out flashes of color. I waited in the dark as we called to owls. I awakened early, in murky dawns, to visit smelly salt marshes and fix spotting scopes on wading birds. These memories flicker at the edge of my past, appearing as suddenly as the first live owl I ever saw. Late at night, I rode beside my father in his GMC. We wore black trash bags as improvised ponchos, and the rain outside continued to fall as it had all day. Under a canopy of trees, the night seemed absolute, barely ruptured by the truck’s headlights. Above us, then, appearing like a portent, or an angel, or bolt of feathered energy, a Great Horned Owl hovered. His mottled underbelly glided just above the windshield, for a moment so brief it survives only as memory, not story. Then it disappeared.

Matthew Ferrence, “Spaces Between”

Here now, in the last twitches of summer, where weather has turned quickly from a cool summer to solidified autumn, a Barred Owl has taken to calling from the woods near my house. The call first appeared a bit more than a week ago, the familiar four beat syncopation, hmm hmm hm-hmmmmm. I awoke that first night, cool air streaming through the open window, the clock declaring it half past three, and I listened while the owl called into the night. Last night, the owl called again, as it did two nights before as well, wresting me from sleep now even through closed windows. This is not a loud call, the owl clearly perching not in my yard or the neighbors, but down the street, where the road ends and a swatch of ravine separates the small city from forest. But I hear it, wake to it, something about the tonality of owls that cannot be ignored, something about the owl that calls to me alone.

“The point of the recollection of thing, person or event is in large part to reinhabit, to some degree, the former self,” Sven Birkerts writes in The Art of Time in Memoir (26). So it is with owls for me, this most recent night call an echo of other appearances. And reading today, I find myself thinking about these words from Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s prologue to his collection, Descanso For My Father: “Gazing down at the artifacts, I began to assemble portraits. From the portraits, narratives” (Fletcher 5). I do not intend to write my own narrative here, that of owls calling out from so many nighttimes to so many versions of myself, though I do expect to be haunted by owls for the remainder of my life, haunted in much the same way Fletcher writes of spirits visiting members of his family after death. No, indeed, my intention is to write myself toward a brief discussion of the power of the owl named Tirzah, the most crucial character in the lead essay of the collection, called “Beautiful City of Tirzah.”

This autumn marks the fourth I have taught that essay, but the first that I have taught it as part of a study of the recently-published collection. And I must report that I find the essay near-perfect, as fine an example of recognizing the power of metaphor circling a life as I can find. The motion of Tirzah in the essay leads both reader and narrator toward objects of note. Owls are, as grandmother Desolina declares, omens, if not bad, at least “messengers of the night” (11) as she tells the childhood Harrison, narrator of the essay. Structurally, it is precisely the motion and effect of the singular owl, Tirzah, that I find so fascinating.

Tirzah directs the eye, avoiding young Harrison for so many pages because he is not prepared to follow the owl where he needs to go. Instead, she gives peace and hope to his mother, memory of youth to his grandfather, sense of purpose to his brother. Or, rather, Tirzah doesn’t avoid Harrison: the avoidance goes the other way, the boy too timid and unsure to embrace the bird. His first touch, even, is with the tip of a pencil. But then, finally, an opening…literally, to the closet door within which the possessions of the narrator’s dead father are collected: “Tirzah, gazing toward the opening from her perch, flutters atop the closet door. I hold my breath. My sister calls our mother. Normally, the closet is off limits to us kids. We try to shoo Tirzah away, but she won’t budge. She just stares into the cool abyss. After a moment, she lowers her head and hops inside. From then on, the hall closet becomes her sanctuary. To fetch her, I must reach into darkness, brushing my father’s things” (16-17). Literally, the action of the owl is to lead young Harrison into that darkness, to force him to reach — without sight — and make contact with the clothing left behind. Structurally, the move signals the space between the then and now of memoir, of which Birkerts writes as being central to the meaning-making of the genre. The owl leads the author to reconcile the memory of the past with the meaning of the past.

Describing that move doesn’t do it justice, because the lyricism of the essay is staggering. There are no breaks to the narrative, no clumsy moves to declare what things mean. In fact, the very nature of this essay is to avoid declarations. It is, instead, a groping toward the beginning of knowledge, a slow recognition of the desire to know a man who can hardly be remembered. Tirzah is, in this light, both omen and oracle. Yet she is also purely owl, revealed later in the piece at the expense of a meadowlark.

For a long time, this essay has struck me with its beauty. As a stand-alone piece, it serves as an exemplar of what the essayistic impulse is all about. But as the lead piece to a collection, it serves as so much more. “Beautiful City of Tirzah” locates the moment of departure for the author, that moment in life when a single portrait began to shape the desire for narrative. Reaching into that darkness is the moment when, in the words of Birkerts, “pattern hints at a larger order, possibly an intention to underlying experience” (49). From this starting point, then, Fletcher establishes the position of the book, that of the confused young boy, seeking knowledge, afraid to touch it, yet reaching into the darkness. This, too, is the position of the memoirist, beginning to first recognize the way moments will assemble to reveal a clarifying, if not unifying, narrative.

I think, then, of my own owls, and of Fletcher’s prologue definition of the roadside memorials he has witnessed in New Mexico: “However they originated, historians agreed: a descanso marks the ground of an interrupted journey, the spot where a man, woman, or child died unexpectedly, the point at which a spirit left its body. A descanso reminds us to pray for a soul in purgatory. It is a manifestation of unexpressed grief, a communication, a eulogy, an apology” (6). I think about the owls of my life, how they adhere to moments of longing, and night, and the confusion that lies between wakefulness and sleep. “A descanso is love,” Fletcher declares, ending the definition. The book, Tirzah, owls hooting across Northwestern Pennsylvania — these are all invitations to recognize the gaps of knowing that create our emotional memory, the energy of attachment between past and present that allows us to recognize the meaning of the present in the accumulation of the past.

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