Deena Metzger’s “A Rain of Night Birds”

A Rain of Night Birds by Deena Metzger might well be one of the most important books written in this troubled century. I’ve known Deena and have been reading her novels, poetry, essays for over 40 years. But this one had an impact on me that I’m still struggling to articulate.  I’ll tell you this: since reading this novel, every time I’ve gone outside, I’ve been newly aware of the wind – its direction, force, temperature, texture. I’d not paid it much attention since the days, long-ago now, when I paddled a kayak in the Bay. Anyone who spends much time on the water quickly learns the life-and-death importance of wind and current.

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Deena Metzger (Photo by Jessica Shokrian)

A Rain of Night Birds reminded me that such attention to the Earth is now essential at all times and is certainly a matter of life and death.

Deena has always embraced paradox. She gives new meaning to the  adage that the personal is political. In “Rain…” she explores the lives of two characters, Sandra Birdswell and Terrence Green, whose separate journeys have led them to recognize the inadequacy of conventional Western science to respond to planetary crisis.

Deena is the first  writer I’ve read who has managed to write  a novel that puts climate change front and center without making the reader despair and without falling into didacticism. Every moment of  “Rain…” is grounded in the lived experience of her characters.  (I’m using “climate change”  to stand for the terrifying consequences of so much human activity since the early Industrial Age.)

Both Sandra and Terrence are climatologists. He’s mixed-race – Native American and white. She’s the daughter of a white doctor whose formative years were spent in the Indian Health Service in the southwest. His closest friend is Hosteen Tseda,  an indigenous healer who becomes Sandra’s adopted uncle, teacher and mentor.

Sandra chooses to become a healer as well. But even as a child she understands that her calling is to heal the earth.

Years after she first meets Professor G – as Terrence likes to be called by his students – they become lovers and allies.  Both of them grew up without knowing their birth mothers. This shared absence in their histories contributes to the profound need they each feel to reconnect themselves to the Earth. Though they’re both scientists, their ties to indigenous culture with its very different ways of knowing informs, tempers and transforms their relationship to the natural world.

Summary and synopsis can only reduce what Deena has accomplished here. There’s no way to give a capsule description of these reluctant heroes without making them sound like two-dimensional icons. It’s their layered complexity and  enormous vitality that drives this novel.  This book is a kind of “dream-catcher.” Its elements work together lyrically, psychologically and spiritually to create the conditions in the reader’s heart in which wisdom itself might appear.

A Rain of Night Birds, novel, Purchase from Birchbark Books and Native Arts – http://birchbarkbooks.com/all-online-titles/a-rain-of-night-birds

Find out more about Deena Metzger

 

Storyboard Dances

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Earlier today I read an article in The New Yorker  about the street dancer, Storyboard P. and watched several online videos of his dancing. I was moved and deeply impressed by his astonishing virtuosity. He “pops and locks” in break dancing style but also has created his own vocabulary of extreme and precise isolations that he actually describes as a series of “charley horses” and that have the look of stop-frame animation. He and other “flex” dancers sometimes refer to their moves as “animations.”  He also uses moves from other forms of street dancing like “juking,” which mimics ballet en pointe foot work.

But more than his technical proficiency – which is more than enough to put him in his own category, it was the rawness of the impulse-life behind his movements that captured me. Strange to tell, I, a 68 year old Jew recognized the place from which this 23 year old African American found his intense physical expressivity.

It’s a place I’ve visited as an actor at certain special times, usually improvising without words, mostly on my own but at times with a partner, connecting to story or character that carries intense emotion, in a pre-verbal way. By “place” I mean an inner condition, a state of awareness that’s free of the controlling, dominating power of discursive, discriminating, utilitarian, hierarchical thought-language or judgmental self-talk;  free of any desire to please anyone or accomplish anything other than “tracking” the pure energy of the physical impulses – those minute desires to move this or that limb, make this or that sound, run, fall, shake or be still.

Perhaps this condition, not unlike states of mindful but non-discriminating awareness that can arise in Buddhist meditation, has something to do with giving oneself over to a distributed intelligence that’s different from the more familiar kind neo-cortex-associated intelligence.

For a while now, neuroscientists, plant biologists, computer scientists, information theorists have been talking about “hive mind” “swarming”  “distributed networks”  as a way to explain seemingly “intelligent” behavior among plants, animals, insects and computers.  Migrating birds, schools of fish, bees and ants, trees and sagebrush all partake of this phenomenon.

Perhaps humans do as well. When I watch Storyboard dance, it’s as if I’m seeing him deconstruct his body into an aggregation of nerves, muscles, tendons, cells and impulses that dance, argue and fight with each other, that support, block, push and pull each other, that coalesce for a moment and come apart again.

Watching him dance, I am reminded of both scientific and mythopoeic accounts of the origin of the cosmos. God contracting God’s essence to make a space for the created universe to exist. Energies so compelling they bend light and pull it into their dark core. Primordial beings giving birth to time and space.

This notion of a performer fragmenting herself into multiple presences isn’t new. It exists in some forms of South Asian narrative dance like Kathakali in which the dancer’s hand gestures, eye and torso movements, footwork and voice each have their own specific role in telling the story, whether it be to convey a mood or emotion, embody a character, evoke a landscape or change the point of view.  In the West, solo performers – mimes, storytellers, puppeteers, ventriloquists, performance artists, monologists – have split themselves  into many parts for centuries, playing multiple characters simultaneously.

But Storyboard’s performances, almost always improvised in the moment, would be difficult to parse in conventional dramatic terms. He might use narrative, but because he’s working so close to the bone – literally – we become witnesses to a shamanic journey rather than listeners to a story. Storyboard, though a dancer, achieves the Artaudian ideal of the actor who “signals through the flames”  that consume his identity, who reveals what remains after ego, social conditioning and self-will are burned away before our astonished eyes.