Between a Bird Cage and a Bird House by Katerina Stoykova


Review by H. L. Hix

Immigration is a pressing public policy issue.  Millions worldwide are fleeing conditions of grave danger or extreme hardship in one country for conditions they hope may be safer or more bearable in another country, in many cases risking their very lives to do so.  It is well that others of us, beneficiaries of more secure circumstances, seek to understand, and mitigate the harms of, the present conditions shaping immigration, and that we seek to understand, and mitigate the trauma of, the experience endured by the many persons presently undertaking the challenge of immigration.  Journalism and literature are at work now in support of such understanding and mitigation.

We apply the term “immigrant,” though, to persons in two distinct groups: those presently in the process of (attempting to) immigrate, and those who have completed the process.  That is, a person who in the present is trying to enter one country from another is an immigrant, and a person who in the past has entered one country from another is also an immigrant.  Journalism and literature ought to ask after the experience of persons in the former group, certainly, but also the experience of persons in the latter group.  What is it like to live the event of immigrating?  But also, what is it like to live the condition of having immigrated?  The event is happening for millions now, but for millions of others the condition is happening now.

Katerina Stoykova’s new poetry collection Between a Bird Cage and a Bird House testifies to the condition.  In its poems, the condition of being an immigrant — living in a country (and a culture and a language) other than that into which one was born — is precisely observed and keenly felt, with the result that the book is inviting and profound.  Stoykova speaks from experience.  She immigrated to the U.S. from Bulgaria in 1995, soon after the breakup of the Soviet Union, so she has lived the condition of having immigrated, the condition of being an immigrant, for nearly three decades.  She has been an immigrant, that is, for by far the greater portion of her adult life.

The poems’ concision and understatement make forceful their reminder that the various features of the immigrant experience are not affect-neutral, disinterested facts.  They are immersive, emotionally-charged facts that are felt by the person who has immigrated, facts that define what it feels like to live one’s life far from one’s birthplace.

The poem “Light without her body,” early in the collection, is representative.  Here is the poem in its entirety.  (Quite a few of the poems are similarly compact.)

Light without her body,

the snakeskin travels anywhere

the wind wants.

Having lost the glove of home,

free to grow at last,

the body moves on.

You know how it goes —

becoming someone else

by leaving something behind.

The feature of the immmigrant experience on which the poem focuses is easy to state: freedom is accompanied by loss.  That loss, though, is not something the person who has immigrated observes from “outside” the experience or “above” it, but something the person feels from “within” it.  The poem conveys this feeling by its ordering: freedom is tendered first, but then immediately taken away, from the reader now on the page as previously from the immigrant in real life.  The snakeskin “travels anywhere” but — line break — not where it wants to go, only where something else, the wind, makes it go.  The body, similarly, is “free to grow at last,” but that freedom is secured only “by leaving something behind.”  One elegance of the poem is that it can be read in either of two ways: with the immigrant as the snake’s body emerging from the shed skin that is the birth country, or with the immigrant as the snakeskin released from the birth country that is the snake’s body.  Either way, the immigrant’s new self comes at the cost of losing its prior self.

Stoykova doesn’t use Sara Ahmed’s term “affect alien” or Nirmal Puwar’s term “space invader,” but what she gives in lyric form resonates with what Ahmed and Puwar theorize.  Whether to affect alien, space invader, or immigrant, the dominant culture gives with one hand but takes back with the other.  Again Stoykova offers the reader what this feels like, as in this untitled poem, presented here (like the poem above) in its entirety.

You’ll be given

everything, twice.

Once — to lose it

in order to live

through that.  The second

time is yours

to decide: everything

you’ve ever wanted

for everything

you’ve ever had.

The poems in Katerina Stoykova’s Between a Bird Cage and a Bird House themselves pursue, and offer to the reader, understanding in the sense of rightly comprehending the nature or meaning of something, in this case what might be called the immigrant experience.  But they also pursue, and offer to the reader, the richer sense of “understanding,” the one that emphasizes empathy and mutuality.  In this regard, the closing lines of “As I’m writing this” encapsulate the tenor of the whole book, which does not ask for empathy and mutuality but offers it.  Addressing a warbler who is attempting “to grasp / the glass pane,” Stoykova says, with a simplicity that is tenderness, “Listen, Friend. / I understand.”