Migratory Medleys and a Chorus of Care

March 5, 2024

A review by Melissa T. Yang

Dawn Songs: A Birdwatcher’s Field Guide to the Poetics of Migration, edited by Jamie K. Reaser and J. Drew Lanham

Talking Waters Press, 2023

284 pages, paperback

Anticipating each sunrise, early birds chime in to build up a rousing and memorable soundscape of melodies and harmonies, cheeps and chatters, shouts and murmurs. Dawn Songs: A Birdwatcher’s Field Guide to the Poetics of Migration is a collection of poems and essays orchestrated by Jamie K. Reaser and J. Drew Lanham. Both editors are well-respected polymaths in the bird world. To name a few of their notable accomplishments: Reaser supported the founding of both the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and International World Migratory Bird Day, while Lanham is a MacArthur Fellow whose writing and activism around “Birding While Black” has profoundly shaped public understanding at the intersection of conservation, culture, and social justice.

Bringing together numerous writers from around the world—artists, activists, academics, often all at once—these editors usher forth a diverse chorus of a project inspired by avian movements and riotous symphonies of birdsong. The focus on movement in birds parallels the social movements the project supports. It is worth noting that Dawn Songs’ proceeds are donated to American Bird Conservancy’s Conservation and Justice Fellowship Program, which supports avian conservation and environmental justice in interconnected ways, and “provides opportunities to examine and expand how we care for both birds and people.”

I received my copy of Dawn Songs on my own annual spring migration north to my family’s New England home, driven by my own Zugunruhe, the German loan word for “migration anxiety” that often stirs the text to motion. I was delighted to unpack from the manila envelope the bright cover showcasing a Yellow Warbler in song the same week I spotted my first Yellow Warbler of the season. The editors included a kind notecard inviting me to enjoy their “feel guide.”

This was such an apt description of the project that I almost wish it were the published subtitle on the book, which is more sensorily driven than what a scientifically driven “field guide” might suggest. As a project led by two scientists who are also poets, writers, and activists, it makes sense for both to be in play, and at play. I do like the subtitle: “A Birdwatcher’s Field Guide to the Poetics of Migration,” but it feels almost too academic for the creative project at hand. Field guides, poetics, and migration are all key terms with a presence in the collection, but I couldn’t consistently connect these moving parts into a theoretical poetics of migration—when there were poetics of so many other topics in the air. The affective and effective simplicity of Dawn Songs: A Feel Guide more closely represents my reading experience between the covers.

With the glow of the near-golden cover, Dawn Songs radiates warmth and is a welcoming and often feel-good project of collaborative care. This collection is grounded in kindness and it reads like a passion project; expect homegrown charm with narratives and reflection. It’s a bit sprawling, with some repetitive riffs, more tailored to an audience of enthusiastic birdwatchers than to expert poetry critics. Still, there is something for everyone. I personally enjoyed the book more when I stepped away from trying to analyze the poems as the academic writer and critic I was trained to be, and just felt with them and read with the grain. There’s a lot of nourishment in these pages.

When I think about anthologies, I often remember that “anthology” comes from ancient Greek and Latin for "flower-gathering," so an anthology is a garland of flowers, a bouquet, a curated experience of pickings from nature. But I also think about leaving flowers for birds to forage in—and this is the sort of anthology work Reaser and Lanham do here. To the extent that they include so many pieces, the collection can feel a bit saturated at times, but it leaves options for the foraging reader. The book asks you to dip in and enjoy when you need a song, and it is a model of inclusivity and kindness. Many poems are plainspoken, narrative, descriptive, and accessible. There are departures and exceptions, of course, in the wide range. It was heartening to see the inclusion of multilingual and macaronic poems, poems that play with form (like Pamela Uschuk’s goose migration poem, which pushes lines into a “V/after V interlock, weave” formation), and short essays sandwiched between poems.

This collection opens with a contribution from the two editors before the first section: “To Know.” Then, “To Wonder,” “To Lament,” and “To Celebrate.” Many of the selections could fall into multiple categories, but the orienting feature is helpful. What I especially appreciate are the gestures toward inquiry in closing: “Join the Chorus: A Reader’s Guide to Dawn Songs” invites you to engage with the book through guiding questions. I think “About Dawn Songs” would be as fitting as a prologue as an epilogue, so I’ll preface it here: “Dawn Songs…is more than a book. It is an invocation—a calling together of birds and bird watchers…It is a celebration of what unites us…”

The writers who contributed to this collection include a number of names who will be familiar to birders. Just in the opening pages, there are pieces by Pepper Trail ("the Sherlock Holmes of bird crime” and founder of The Feather Atlas of North American Birds) and popular nonfiction writer and biologist David George Haskell, among others. With this stellar cast, it would’ve been nice to have a biographical glossary of the contributors to learn more about the vast range of voices. Without this, we do get to focus on the bird voices, though. Pamela Norton Reed is one of several poets who play up familiar mnemonics in their pieces, from the “sweet sweet sweet” of the Yellow Warbler to the “eee oh lay” of the Wood Thrush. These pieces play another role by showing newer birders how to listen to birds and to learn from them.

There are so many ways to listen and learn from birds, and with Dawn Songs, Reaser, Lanham, and their flock of writers move readers to care for birds—and each other—and all the other interconnected, precarious, precious, and lyrical elements of the Earth.

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Melissa T. Yang is the Writing Center Director at Emory University, where she teaches courses themed around animals and the environment. Melissa holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pittsburgh, and her primary research explores entanglements between birds and words, and poultry and poetry.