1. My Life Before
My name was Fritz and I disliked it as much as the man who pinned it on me. A dark-haired, conceited, rather flabby young man, Johannes was an exchange student far more interested in women than books. So far as I could tell, he had respect for neither. The difference was that he perpetually sought out the former while assiduously avoiding the latter. Apart from romantic pursuits, his favorite pastimes were drinking alcohol, eating take-out food, listening to techno music, and looking at pornography.
What would such a person want with me? It certainly was a question. I’ve thought about it lately and my conclusion is that he installed me in his disorderly flat to interest the women he managed to lure there. The idea must have been to make them think he had a soft side, that he was capable of sincere affection. I gathered that these women thought him exotic; they liked his accent. They all approached my cage with the identical, rather silly smile and asked my name. “Oh,” Johannes would say with a grin, “that’s my faithful comrade, Fritz.” “He looks sad,” some would say. “Do you ever let him out so he can fly around?” One said, “He has such intelligent eyes.” Every one of them asked if I could talk. “When he likes,” Johannes would reply coyly. “He’s got a mind of his own, does Fritz; but he’s a good boy.” This pretense of devotion really did make a good impression on the women, at least at first. In fact, Johannes fed me irregularly, often neglected to clean out my cage and to keep the water fresh. When one of the women asked how he came to have me, he’d tell her an elaborate story about saving me from a filthy bazaar during his year in Africa doing humanitarian work. To forestall premature departures by the women, Johannes taught me a speech. When one of them headed for the door he would clap his hands and I was to say, “Wie geht es dir, Fräulein? Geh nicht. Ich liebe dich.” It worked surprisingly well. The woman would stop and ask Johannes to translate what I’d said. This he did in a manner he probably thought irresistibly charming. It took me a long time to learn that little speech, and Johannes was hardly a patient teacher. He yelled at me and slapped my cage if I got a word wrong or if my pronunciation didn’t meet his standards. At the time, I had no idea what the words meant, though I did understand they must mean something—something that could make a woman who wanted to get away from Johannes reconsider doing so.
I too longed to get away from Johannes but had no idea of how to go about it. I couldn’t simply fly away, not with my clipped wings; anyway, Johannes never opened my cage, except to change the newspaper that lined its bottom when he kept me in with a long fork. Eventually, I concluded that the only recourse was to find some way to make him wish to be rid of me. But, even if I could find that way, the risk was terrifying. He might have left me to die of thirst or simply twisted my neck. He was certainly capable either. If I irritated him at the wrong time—for instance, after a woman had walked out—he might just toss me out the window. My first and last flight.
I bided my time.
Then I noticed that Johannes was bringing only one woman back. She stayed over nights and then entire weekends. Her name was Juliet and I could see how it was. Johannes went from being kind and loving toward Juliet to sounding sarcastic and angry. Twice I saw him grab her arm while he shouted at her. I paid close attention. Then one night the two of them returned and Johannes was already yelling at Juliet. As usual, he’d been drinking and he went on drinking after they came in, growing more furious with each gulp. Juliet expostulated with him, apparently denying something. And then suddenly, if I understood correctly, she too became angry and stopped denying anything. Johannes exploded. He threw his can of beer in her direction and ran to the door, violently yanking it open.
“Get out!” he shouted. “Raus mit dir! Raus mit dir, du. . . du Schlampe!”
Raus mit dir, du Schlampe. I let these words sink in; I could tell they were powerful. I memorized them and waited to unleash them. Last year, when I was being read an old play, a couple lines reminded me of the feeling I often had during my time with Johannes: I understand a fury in your words but not your words. When I think back to that unhappy epoch I appreciate and even identify with Desdemona’s double innocence. Unlike Johannes’ cheating girlfriend, Desdemona had not betrayed Othello; but she was also innocent in being unable to make out the meaning of an angry speech. That’s just how I was back then, hearing noises, knowing they expressed something, but unable to make out their meaning.
I did escape. I’d like to think that my cleverness and bravery were rewarded, but the truth is that I was just spectacularly lucky.
Juliet never returned, and it was a long time before Johannes brought a new woman back to the apartment. The two of them came in tipsily and fell down together on the couch. I waited until they were entangled before delivering my speech as loudly as I could: Raus mit dir, du Schlampe!
Everything stopped. Johannes leapt up. The woman, alarmed, cried, “What was that? What did he say?”
Johannes tried to calm her.
I said it again. Raus mit dir! And again and again. . . until she left. Johannes was infuriated.
I played this scene three times with three different women.
Johannes made threats, growling and shaking his fist. He whacked my cage so violently that I fell over and hurt my head. But this only encouraged me.
I began to say it over and over at random times, even when he was asleep. Raus mit dir!
I don’t doubt that Johannes would have liked to kill me. But he also wanted money and he had bought me from a pet shop. This meant I had value, and so, instead of wringing my neck and stuffing me into a garbage bag, he sold me. I’ve never asked for how much and I’ve never been told. But I do know that he posted flyers on bulletin boards around the university. One of these was spotted by my savior, Leda, the love of my life. She bought me. It is Leda who has made me the focus of her life and work, as she is of mine. It is Leda who gave me a new life and purpose and so much more, immensely more. It is Leda who changed the despised name Fritz to the noble one of Akewi.
The first thing I have to say about Leda is that she’s kind. When she came to take me away from Johannes she whispered to me soothingly, as though reassuring me that our bond would be nothing like the one from which she was rescuing me. Of course, she couldn’t know my feelings about Johannes. She was probably anxious that I would be upset about being moved. How could she have known how delighted and relieved I was? I remember trying to indicate this to her by mimicking her whisper while hopping up and down.
The second thing to say about Leda is that she’s a scientist. This means she saw me as a research subject, though before long our relationship became something closer and more intimate, a collaboration. Our work reinforced our attachment; we were two oxen yoked to the same load, pulling it up the same hill. My progress was hers.
As a teenager, Leda had read about Alex and Irene Pepperberg and was moved by their story. Learning about them set the course of her life—therefore of mine. Like Leda, Dr. Pepperberg had given a significant name to her subject and friend. “Alex” was an acronym for Avian Language Experiment. The two worked together for three decades. It was slow going but both persisted. At the time of his death, Alex had a vocabulary of a hundred words, and gave every indication of understanding their meanings. He could ask and answer questions, distinguish colors and shapes, and grasped spatial relations: above, below, over and under. He was able to make requests, such as the wish to stop working when he was tired. Alex was even able to teach behaviors to other birds, becoming, in a sense, a lab assistant. Dr. Pepperberg estimated that Alex had the intelligence of a five-year-old child, certainly on a par with dolphins and apes. The scientific world was more than skeptical. Birds have bird brains, they said, and they aren’t mammals. But the evidence was undeniable.
What caught Leda’s imagination was that Dr. Pepperberg, though she never claimed two-way communication, said that, when he died at thirty-one, Alex had not achieved his full potential. Creatures like Alex and me can live forty-five years or more.
Leda told me how, when Dr. Pepperberg came to the lab as usual one morning, she found Alex dead. She spoke movingly of the dreadful shock Dr. Pepperberg must have suffered and the mourning that followed. I was touched too and understood that Leda was imagining how she would feel if I were to die. She told me that Alex’s last words were the ones he spoke to Dr. Pepperberg every night when she left the lab: You look good. See you tomorrow. I love you. Leda wept. I had never seen her cry before. I wanted so much to comfort her.
When Leda leaves me for the night, I sometimes think of both Alex and Johannes and say, Geh nicht. Ich liebe dich. It’s a kind of serious private joke.
Third, Leda is patient with me and unfailingly encouraging. She rejoices in any progress I achieve, ascribing it all to me when it is a lot more than half her doing.
Fourth, Leda is beautiful.
The speech that liberated me from Johannes showed me that words could provoke feelings. But, at the time, I couldn’t grasp all the implications; I didn’t yet think of words as words but merely as sounds. The difference is vital. If Alex had figured out the connection between sound and significance then it’s not surprising Dr. Pepperberg thought that he might have achieved more. If one Congo Grey could go where all the experts thought impossible why shouldn’t another go still further? This was the goal of Leda’s research project. It became mine as well.
I liked my new home in the laboratory. It made a change from Johannes’ cluttered and dingy flat and my filthy cage. Everything was clean and white. My cage was huge compared to the old one and it was carefully seen to. I was allowed out of it for hours at a time. Leda even made a special perch for me by her desk. The wooden dowel wasn’t too thin or thick but just right. There was a big window high on the wall. I could look out whenever I liked. During the day I could see sunlight and trees. At night, there was the one big moon and the countless little stars.
At first, it was just a kind of playing with sounds. My earliest efforts were senseless noises, then equally meaningless rhymes. Making rhymes pleased me because they pleased Leda. Whenever I made one she would give me a special treat, a bit of fruit—melon, strawberries, or mangos—or some of my favorite vegetables—carrots and sweet potatoes. With such encouragement I croaked out plenty of nonsense.
What sight like
Salt on inch
Then, one afternoon—I’ve never figured out quite how—I managed to fit rhyme to reward:
When Leda heard that couplet, she fairly danced around the lab. Watching that was even better than the strawberry I earned.
For a time, Leda took on an assistant. Her name was Selena and she wasn’t much interested in me. She preferred the white mice who never said anything, at least nothing either she or I could hear. Selena took notes on experiments, helped keep the lab clean, and asked Leda endless questions about how to get ahead in animal psychology. When she was alone cleaning up, she liked to listen to music but I couldn’t hear it because she had these wires that kept it in in her ears. I didn’t even know she was listening to music until the time the wires fell out of her ears and I could hear the faint beat.
One day, Selena brought a box that put out plenty of sound. It was music but also words. I was afraid Selena might turn it off, so I hopped up and down, bobbed my head, and squawked: “Good good mood. Good like food.”
One song attracted me powerfully. I beat my wings against the cage so Selena would play it again and, to my delight, she did. It amused her that I liked this song. She came over to my cage and laughed at me. That was an important day.
Years later, I found out the song was called “Around the Way Girl.” It’s long and most of it passed right through me; but one line stuck. Like Desdemona, I understood the passion in the words, just not the words. Somehow—maybe because of my infatuation with Leda—I intuited that it was a love song, even though the singer didn’t sound loving.
Silky milky, her smile is like sunshine
I tried to memorize these words the way I had the ones Johannes taught me. I practiced over and over and, two mornings later, when Leda came into the lab I greeted her with Silky milky, her smile is like sunshine.
Leda thought the words were mine until she told Selena about it. Selena laughed and explained they weren’t mine but LL Cool J’s. All the same, Leda was still wowed. That was the day she began to call me Akewi. In Africa, it means poet.
Leda began reading to me. She started with nursery rhymes--Jack and Jill went up the hill. . . Georgie Porgy puddin’ and pie. . . . Then she moved on to short but more challenging poems--Never met this fellow attended or alone / without a tighter breathing and zero at the bone. . . Loveliest of trees, the cherry now / is hung with bloom along the bough. . . . Whenever I liked a particular bit, I’d try to repeat it.
Gradually, Leda expanded the scope of her readings; but, for a long time, she chose only poems. I was often bored or exasperated by understanding so little and I let her see it by closing my eyes or reeling on my perch as if I were about to fall off. But Leda persisted. It was as though her purpose were to drown me in verse. Little by little, my vocabulary grew and I began to understand a little more without so much strain. Nevertheless, I never found the relation between sound and meaning easy to grasp.
For a long time, Leda read out of the same book. This was a fat little paperback called Immortal Poems of the English Language. It featured little portraits of the poets on the front and back covers. Whenever she was going to read me something by one of them, Leda always showed me the portrait first. I liked that. They were all so different from one another. I wanted to meet them. Leda explained why this was impossible.
The most lasting impressions on me were made by a poem by Dylan Thomas and one by Percy Shelley. It was by hearing over and over these poems that I improved my ability to connect sound to sense.
“Poem in October” thrilled me. It wasn’t clear but didn’t need to be as it was as much music as words and the music was intoxicating.
. . . Here fond climates and sweet singer suddenly
Come in the morning when I wandered and listened
To the rain wringing
Wind blow cold
In the wood faraway under me.
Years later, when Leda told me about Alex, dead at thirty-one, I thought of this poem’s first line: It was my thirtieth year to heaven. By then I was myself well over thirty.
I couldn’t take in all of what Dylan Thomas wrote, of course even though I made Leda read it over and over.
“Fond climates” was puzzling but pleasing to repeat. I liked the way “The wood faraway under me” shifted things, as if the poem shot up to take a bird’s-eye view. The words seemed to awaken some atavistic impulse in me or perhaps a recovered memory of unclipped wings, though I’ve never flown above a wood; I’ve never flown above anything.
When I finally figured out the distinction between wringing and ringing, I was delighted but also baffled. Two words could sound the same but mean different things. It was an unsettling revelation and I thought about it for a long time.
Shelley’s poem spoke to me more directly than “Poem in October.” I liked to think he had me in mind, Akewi, as he wrote it.
Hail to thee, blithe spirit!
Bird thou never wert;
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art. . .
. . . Like a poet hidden
In the light of thought
Singing hymns unbidden
Till the world is wrought
To sympathy with hope and fears it heeded not. . .
I loved the word “skylark.” Leda explained that it is a bird that sings beautifully and suggested that the poet identified himself with it. To me, though, it seemed that, if Shelley was comparing himself to the skylark, he was admitting he came in second:
Better than all measures
Of delightful sound
Better than all treasures
That in books are found
Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground!
Maybe Shelley wanted to be both a poet and a bird. I wanted to be a poet and a bird too, like the skylark, like Shelley. I too longed to scorn the ground, to soar. This poem felt like it was calling to me, and I determined I would do my best to merit the name Leda had given to me. Akewi.
4. Premeditated Unpremeditated Art
There was so much to learn. To begin with, I would need a decent vocabulary. Alex’s hundred words would hardly serve and, though I had already exceeded that number, what I had was still pitiful.
Leda’s belief is that language isn’t acquired from lessons or words from dictionaries but from swimming in the sea of language—or flying through a sky filled with floating words. Leda read something to me every day but only for about ten minutes. When she saw how keen I was to learn, she set up a machine near my cage that played people reading—stories and plays but mostly poems. I had a switch that I could peck to turn the voices on and off. If I wanted, I could listen all night and sometimes I did just that, too excited to sleep. At other times, the voices droned and I fell asleep in minutes. Over the years, both my vocabulary and confidence swelled until I felt ready to make my first serious effort at composition. It was a painstaking, exasperatingly slow process; moreover, the result was crude and didn’t make very good sense. Nevertheless, from Leda’s response you’d think I’d produced an avian Divine Comedy.
Let those in, but stay outside;
close the cage, just not too wide.
Bestir yourself while you’re at rest;
your worst is better than my best.
The stars are out, the sky’s black blue;
the clock runs slowly, one to two.
One meal a day makes not a fast;
an unfed bird’s not apt to last.
Endure the storm and pay your dues,
regret nothing, ignore the news.
Keep bad folk out after you go;
if they say yes, then we’ll say no.
Leda transcribed it. She also gave it a title so she could file it properly, she said. She called it “Akewi’s Advice.”
My second attempt was better, at least in my opinion. Leda makes no distinctions between good and bad. Whatever I produce delights her. She’s an enthusiastic audience but useless as a critic. On the other hand, she excels at finding titles; for some reason, I can never think of one. This one she called “Gnomic Song”:
Belly of a blue-scaled fish,
tigrous eye, unblinking, wide,
an ink-stained mirror on a dish,
to show those things that shadows hide.
Arcanae in roots of heather,
chthonous rumbling under clods:
if gods didn’t make the weather,
surely weather made the gods.
Rivers wrap a smooth white stone,
storms blow soft through hollow reeds,
blood and marrow, wings and seeds.
Go pluck pits from brittle pods,
a song from lungs fretted with feather.
If weather hasn’t made the gods,
Surely gods have made the weather.
Where did I learn of the gods? From the Odyssey and a book of Greek myths. Leda was astonished by chthonous and arcanae but the word she liked best of all was tigrous, because I’d made it up.
Leda and I had been together for more than ten years by then. They were good years, filled with listening and then composing. Still, I consumed far more than I produced. I had seen her thesis, and it was impressive, thick, with a blue cover. But what she showed me now was different. It was a book like Immortal Poems of the English Language. It made me an author, too. Most of it was Leda’s writing, her data and charts, but it included my verses as well, transcribed and neatly printed out. “Look,” she said, and showed me the cover. It was a picture of Leda and me. She beamed. “We’re famous, Akewi.”
Then came publicity and photographers, interviews, airplanes, audiences, applause. From adults there was skepticism and condescension, from children, curiosity and awe. For our public appearances, Leda wore make-up and colorful clothes. She altered her hair, too. I didn’t care for all these changes but kept it to myself.
Did I have mixed feelings? Of course I did. Being famous made Leda happy but it divided us and took us away from home. Worse still were those times I stayed in the lab while she flew off to one of her conferences to defend our work. That’s when I learned what pining means, that you could resent what you yearned for. Out of that soup of feelings I spooned these verses:
Cage’s dents make ragged shade,
and newsprint is no gladsome guide:
away from bright cold steel tables
all’s deranged, detached, denied.
How am I doing? what
Perhaps I’ll tell next Monday,
or maybe in November.
From me to you to me
from you to me to you--
Akewi alone, forlorn, unfeathered,
forsaken like the last bird in a zoo.
5. My Fortieth Year to Heaven
Leda thinks I’m ten years older than Alex when he fell off his perch, a whole decade, more or less. I don’t want to go gentle into that good night, Dylan Thomas, honestly I don’t. To rage is respectable. Raging is dignified. But is it admirable only because it’s futile? Like Alex, you never made it to your fortieth birthday, Dylan Thomas, and by then you’d been raging or obsessing for twenty years. You were just twenty when you wrote this:
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot.
And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashore.
Did you grasp it, being then so full of life, with so much of it ahead?
Leda is older too. Her hair is turning the color of my feathers. But to me her beauty has only deepened. The elastic enthusiasm of youth began to harden when she got her degree but it has been replaced by a queenly seriousness. One thing has not changed at all; her devotion to me is undiminished. I see the anxiety in her face when she arrives each morning and the relief when she sees me doing my best to hop up and down at the sight of her.
During these last weeks I have been making a poem for her—a farewell poem, a valediction—but now that it’s done I can’t bring myself to say it to her.
I took my theme not from Dylan Thomas or Percy Shelley, not from any of the immortal poets of the English language, but from what an old philosopher said. John Keats, to my surprise, rated philosophy above poetry. An eagle is not so fine a thing as a truth, he explained. I’d like to argue that an eagle is a kind of truth; still, I know what he meant.
So Long as We Exist, Death is Not With Us
You in an airplane, I in a balloon.
The sky moves, and the clouds.
We move too. You fast and not low,
I far below and very slow.
You showed me us in a photograph.
It’s a sort of proof, ocular proof,
you said, proof of our fame, you said.
The Congo Grey that loves you
will love you ‘til he drops dead.
But When We Are Dead, Then We Do Not Exist
Silence isn’t silent, sleep isn’t sleeping,
darkness isn’t dark, meaning isn’t meaning.
The perch beneath me that I won’t feel,
warm sunlight in our lab I will not feel.
Shall I drop down right now, shall I?
My cage will be spotless at last.
But I’ll miss all the words I’ll miss,
and songs, but most of all you.
Goodbye. Don’t cry. Just blow a kiss.
No, I can’t recite this to Leda. It’s too much for me to bear. And, after all, there’s no improving on what my more innocent precursor said.
You be good. See you tomorrow. I love you.
Ich liebe dich.