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For the Love of Snails: A Review of Katerina Stoykova’s BETWEEN A BIRD CAGE AND A BIRD HOUSE




Katerina Stoykova     

        

Between a Bird Cage and a Bird House


University Press of Kentucky / January 2024 / 100 pp / $19.95


Reviewed by Melanie Weldon-Soiset / April 2024


 

In her latest book of poetry, Between a Bird Cage and a Bird House, Katerina Stoykova explores the beauty, heartache, and confusion of immigrant life in the US. Stoykova's own immigrant experiences likely burnish these verses. Originally from Bulgaria, Stoykova moved to the United States in 1995. Since 2004, she has resided in Lexington, Kentucky. Stoykova has published several books of poetry in Bulgarian and in English, including Second Skin (ICU Press, 2014, in Bulgarian, and Accents Publishing, 2019, in English), and The Porcupine of Mind (Broadstone Books, 2012, in English). She is also the founder and senior editor of Accents Publishing.

 

Between a Bird Cage and a Bird House is divided into two sections: section A, which contains all but the final long poem, opens with the epigraph, "All I'm asking for is a reason to throw away everything." Within this section, clusters of two or three lyric poems are punctuated by brief, untitled, poetic direct addresses to “America”; the first one, for instance, declares:

 

America, you are so big, I feel



     endless.



Not the spider,


but the web itself.

 

Section B's epigraph asks, "If everything is going your way, then why are you so sad?" It consists solely of "Theorem: America is the greatest country in the world," a fable-like narrative that tells of the bitter bargain women accept of sacrificed potential in exchange for the mortal security that comes with immigration (at the invitation of a man) to America. The proof, conclusion, alternate ending, and alternate conclusion that follow offer only the cold comfort of an ambiguity that suggests anything is possible in America.

 

Between a Bird Cage and a Bird House demonstrates playful variety with poetic form. "Eighth Floor Balcony Ghazal" announces its form in the title, for instance, and there are prose poems that extend over multiple pages, as well as two- or three-lined poems. Between a Bird Cage and a Bird House also introduces more novel forms, such as the Q-&-A-style interview "The Apple Who Wanted to Become a Pinecone."

 

The book's formal variety contributes to the powerfully viscous imagery of immigrant life: immigration is "pouring [a raw] egg into just one of its jagged cups, but now it no longer fits, so you must either leave some behind or never stop going back and forth." Immigration is "a sumac beetle . . . digging forward [in a pipe], through the core, without stopping, until it comes out the other end." Or like the apple in "The Apple Who Wanted to Become a Pinecone," who wants “to resemble a fish and a tree at the same time."

  

These immigrant-themed snapshots delightfully surprise in their peculiar beauty. Another distinct peculiarity of Between a Bird Cage and a Bird House is the emphasis on mollusks. The image on the book's cover is a red snail, set against a blue background, seemingly ascending in flight. Indeed, snails peep up often in the poetry collection. The silhouette of the same ascending snail, a graphic element, appears twenty-four times throughout the book, in the upper left-hand corner on the page of twenty-three different poems.

                 

Other snail imagery also features prominently in Stoykova's collection. The poem "Sus-toss" laments "the disease of living in a walnut shell / and spending all your strength to keep it closed." As the poem's epigraph helpfully explains, "Sus-toss is a word in the Hopi language to describe the disease that people suffer when they move to live on new lands." The speaker of the poem "Black Stone over White Stone" explains "I notice / how . . . / I crawl into another / pile—unfinished business." And the book's final poem mentioned above, "Theorem: America is the greatest country in the world," offers this proof: "As I'm writing this, the future missus is packing / her suitcase with whatever she holds dear / to bring her tight little body and old-world potential / into the room she will need to fill."

 

Snail imagery not only speaks to the beauty of immigrant life, but also to its heartache: carrying one's carapace in constant daily hustle, where home is both immanent and elusive. The concept of "home" is a fraught one in the book. One untitled poem with the snail icon declares, "America, now I know. // You are my home / away from home." The very next poem's title nonetheless warns, "We Must Be Very Careful When Using the Word Home." Indeed, this same poem declares, "At home / there is an old, reddish chair, where / we wrote our first poem. At home / every object is owned by an emotion. . . . At home—/a record number of ghosts."

 

Poetic musicality in Between a Bird Cage and a Bird House heightens the beauty and heartache of the book's immigration lyrics. Indeed, the long "o" sound of "home" resounds loudly in the verses above. One can hear the speaker's moaning. The speaker in the poem “Visit” rues:

 

I visit my homeland the way a snail tries

to fit back into his old shell.

Day after day I writhe inside,

counterclockwise.

 

Yet the speaker's painful "counterclockwise" turning leads to a new, surprising destination: "Snail is the most beautiful Bulgarian word, / says my son, who is studying the language. / I thought it meant love." The "Acknowledgments and Notes" section at the back of the book usefully explains that the "words 'snail' and 'love'...do sound alike" in Bulgarian. This reader wonders if the words also contain the long "o" sound in the Bulgarian tongue.

 

Between a Bird Cage and a Bird House often equates snail imagery with the heart. The poem "Once" declares,

 

I bit into an apple and said,

He and I will be finished

by the time this apple rots.

I kept it at my desk;

the bite marks curled

inward, the white flesh

scabbed toward its softness.

 

"Dear Numbness" reads, "you are a funny kind of snail— / instead of in a shell, you crawl around / your own freezer." In the prose poem "The Body, the Collateral," first "the body slouches toward the ache." Then, "The body notices how its heart unseals, and a puff of love slides towards the body."

 

In addition to heartache and beauty, Stoykova's book also speaks to the confusion that commonly arises in immigrant experiences. The poems with the snail icon eschew titles; several other poems have run-on titles that also serve as first lines for their lyrics. Both types of verse reject titles that could otherwise provide expository information.

 

Other poems challenge English-centric linguistic assumptions. "Imagine a raw egg" begins the previously discussed untitled poem. The very next sentence introduces a new language, seemingly in Cyrillic script. The speaker likely assumes a reader like me, who does not know any Cyrillic-based languages. I find myself wondering: Is this sentence in Bulgarian? Russian? Or some other tongue? Given I don't even know what language I'm reading, it's difficult to even consider what the sentence may say. Like the egg perpetually poured into "just one of its jagged cups," the untitled poem toggles back and forth between words in the Latin alphabet of English, and words in Cyrillic. The second prose stanza is even more Cyrillic-intensive. The pressure of the impenetrable builds. The poem concludes, "this is what it feels like to immigrate."

 

Other ambiguity arises in the book. Some poems directly address "America" as a lover, while others seem to address an individual partner. Even as more narrative context emerges by the end of Between a Bird Cage and a Bird House, vague pronoun usage still sometimes leaves this reader unsure if certain poems are about allegorical America, a particular person, or both. For example, when the speaker in the poem "A man and a woman in a bedroom" concludes,

 

He had given her a cute

coupon for massage

of two body parts

and tonight

both were redeemed.

 

Are these verses meant to be read allegorically? If so, then this reader has difficulty discerning what larger, immigration-related conceit may be at play here.

 

Such abstract language sometimes puts distance between me, as a reader, and the narrative threads of the book's verses. Yet other language invites me to stop, gaze, and notice potentially overlooked details. How many snails may be burrowing in my yard at this very moment? Have I ever stopped to consider the contours and colors of their shells, or what conditions may help them to thrive in relation to their larger ecosystem?

 

By exalting what is often small and overlooked, the poems in this collection celebrate practices of quiet introspection. Indeed, the act of sacred gazing appears often in Between a Bird Cage and a Bird House. "Stained Glass Butterflies," the fourth poem in the book, reads in its entirety: "Fourth set of windows / this year." Another ecclesial-themed poem, "The Way I Pray to St. Catherine," begins, "In the church, / I light a candle. // I walk up to the icon, / squat an inch." The line that follows includes the only caesura in the poem, which creates the imagery that the poem describes: "so that my eyes          align with hers." The very next poem, also untitled and the page marked with the snail icon, celebrates the ultimate hope of Between a Bird Cage and a Bird House:

 

America, you made me 

in your image, then prescribed 

the exercise of looking in the mirror,

repeating I love myself

while gazing into my own eyes

 


 

Melanie Weldon-Soiset's poetry lives in Clerestory, Tipton Poetry Journal, and others. She is a #ChurchToo survivor, MDiv graduate and former pastor, MFA student in poetry in the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing, and poetry editor at Geez Magazine. Find her in real life biking on DC greenways. Find her online at melanieweldonsoiset.com (IG: @MelanieWelSoi).

 

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