One of us lives on the east coast. One of us lives on the west.

One of us lives in a rural community. One of us lives in a city.

Both of us wander. Both of us witness. Both of us write.

This is a record of what we find.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Language of Birds

On the corner of Columbus and Broadway, in San Francisco’s North Beach (my neighborhood) a flock of illuminated books hang suspended. Words spill out on the plaza below.

The Language of Birds—a permanent site-specific sculpture created by artists Brian Goggin with Dorka Keehn—was commissioned in 2008 by the San Francisco Arts Commission for a new plaza linking Chinatown and North Beach. The frosted white translucent polycarbonate ‘books’ give the impression of birds startled up in a flurry—or a dream of thoughts rising above articulation, while the words imbedded in the cement appear to have been left behind, like tea leaves, like bits of divination. Standing in the plaza, I always have the sense that a personal message is hidden in the scattered words, if only I could find the proper order.

Half a block down, on the roof of City Lights bookstore—the heart and soul of literary San Francisco—solar panels power the installation and offset the energy used to light up the books at night.

I read that the artists, Groggin and Keehan, decided the pattern of the fallen text through a project at San Francisco’s Modern Art Museum, by taking words from chosen phrases and randomly casting them from the third floor gallery down to the main lobby, relying on chance to give them order, and on interpretation for the meaning. It’s like a word game we writers sometimes play to summon the muse—I have a carved wooden box, filled with words I like, scribbled on bits of paper (cut up watercolor paintings from my girl’s kindergarten days.) From time to time, when I’m stuck, or bored, or looking for a way to jar language loose in my sub-conscious, I’ll close my eyes and take out a small handful, spread them on the table or drop them on the floor and start making sentences from the words I’ve been given. Here are seven words just chosen in a blind pick:


You could write a scene using the images conjured up by the words, or try to put them all in one sentence: She leaned into the slant of ripe moonlight and stirred her dreams with a levitating plait of longing—the chirp of floorboards made her moan. Yes, I cheated—the m-dash really links two sentences.

We all have words scattered throughout our landscapes, some less random than others. A guerrilla poet has been leaving charged poems in marker on strips of cut tape on North Beach sidewalks for the past few years.

For more thoughts on writing on the sidewalk and the writing life, check out the cool blog our dear friend and classmate, Sarah Tomp, writes with Suzanne Santillan—Writing On the Sidewalk:


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