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From the Archives: Selections from Mental Aviary, by Ewa Chrusciel


Happy birthday, Ewa Chrusciel! Celebrate by reading these Chrusciel poems we published October 30, 2019! 


Long-wattled umbrella bird — Grandiosity

Your wattle darkened the whole room. How grand it was; you swung it at me and it became a large open pine cone. I felt sucked in. I could not help falling for you. You had a John Travolta pompadour. You were more than a bird. You were prince-like, an aristocrat. You were a young Werther. Your wattle willed for the sake of willing. Wait, maybe for the sake of wattling. I needed my DSM-5, but I felt ashamed to consult it.



White ptarmigan — agoraphobia

When you flew into my office, it took me a week to distinguish you from my papers. I even carried you to class by mistake and while I was giving my students back their research papers, the pages fluttered and hissed. What to tell you? You know no boundaries. You switch your plumage for camouflage. You become snow. You become a flock of Dominican monks carving on skis. You become moguls.

From whence your toxic shame? Split self? Do you feel alone in a most complete way?

Watch Woody Allen’s Zelig to recognize your symptom.



Marabou stork, who stormed into my office and vandalized it: You display offender behavior. Your criminalization is coterminous to your victimization. You reenact the offense you suffered. It is called repetition compulsion. Other storks bring babies and wealth. You have an ugly face and you defecate on your own legs after keeling pretty flamingos in front of the tourists. There was this bird, Freud (now extinct), who called this process automatic cover-ups of your primary ego defenses. With all apologies, I prescribe a lobotomy.



Aquatic warbler — sex addict

You called my office, trembling. You said you were procuring your race by copulating for at least half an hour five times a day. You brag about large testicles. You sit on females’ backs for hours to keep other males away; multiple females. Have you ever heard of objectification of love? Have you made lewd singsongs? Have you been hiding behind the branches for the whole night observing two hummingbirds’ lovemaking? How do I now tell him he is a sex addict?



Those are cedar waxwings

They are eating crab apples on one tree outside my office window and pooping out the seeds in the other tree. They don’t have time to pop in for diagnosis. At least we ruled out the hypochondria. You are really cool birds; worthy of a book, or at least a poem. So why can’t you poop on the same tree where the apples are? To keep the hygiene high? Not to pollute the food? The apple tree wants them to take the seeds somewhere else, so they are not shaded. The waxwings feel safer on a taller tree after they are full of fruit. There is nothing really wrong with you except your uniqueness. The apple tree might be a bit OCD. Maybe some shame binds you. Hard to diagnose you. Let’s say: borderline personality. But what do you think?



Knobbed Hornbill, you imprisoned your female in a nest? Only after you invited her in, you plugged the entrance with excreta and mud? Only a slit remains through which she can pee and poop. You claim it is just for safety reasons, to defend her from monkeys and snakes? Are you a chauvinist or a gentleman?

Please bring your partner some bird puzzles. Ask her if by any chance she does not feel trapped in the relationship. Codependency is common nowadays. We will get you out of it, but you need to sing off a disclaimer that — in case you stop being a knobbed hornbill, you will not press charges against my practice.



A group of owls, herons, and hoopoes stormed into my office. Finally all this poetry about them got into their heads. They want to start their own literary group. Gosh, by now there might be fifty groups of them. I will need to rent a gymnasium or a sports stadium to meet their needs. They want catering with Chinese dumplings and caramel candies. I explain to them that in order to get funding and for future stipends, they will need an eco name. They should write to Gary Snyder and ask him to pee on the scribbling in the moonlight for an opening gala night. Also, the Sierra Club might even back them up. They should spread the poster around the town and shrubs. How about a parade topped by foghorns and belly-dancing? I could help with the poppy flowers. The members of the group are getting nervous, because just after calling up a group, some of them left for warmer countries. We added an attendance policy. The absent ones claimed they were getting sloppy drunk with Wislawa Szymborska at their favorite bar in Krakow. Maybe in another life, I tell them…A barn owl claimed she flew to Italy to meet the executives from Tupelo Press in their Italian Office in Rome. Upon her return, she proposed two meetings and even offered to show up for one.

After a month, a hoopoe showed up. “I’m sad to say the group has already broken up, just like the Beatles in 1969. Unfortunately, we didn’t last long enough to get a mention in NH Writers, he chirped. He seemed gloomy. I could prescribe you Zoloft or some prose?

But a few days after, I had impostor birds show up. One bird introduced himself as a poem. He said he never gave up. He is still wading the stadium. Another bird jumped off the page, reterritorialized my office in cross code lines. Then there were birds called couplets that stripped each other and swung their pollinating eggs. Then a bird called consonant swarmed in, pouting and judgmental. He lifted himself up in the air and married the aphids. Then yellow phonemes (similar to warblers) fluttered at first, then rose slowly as in a balloon, and the further they went, the more they envisioned themselves as necessary walruses.

There was no time to consult other psychiatrists. I kept offering psychotropic drugs, mainly anti-obsessional ones, but the birds would not even peck. There were gold-winged hyperboles thrusting around in magnanimity. Metonymies got into a theft by stealing cotton candy from a church bazaar and the smoke went out of their bellies and they wafted it as incense and they took a liking to that ministry and started to sell hosts and indulgences in my office. Ellipses, outraged, isolated on trees, on strike. Coughing Chernobyl birds, fasting, displaying stigmas.

Herzog is coming next week to do a documentary. I went to meet the Chancellor of American poets and a chief of Audubon Society to discuss this cross code phenomenon. I am getting funds and devices.



These poems are from my new manuscript, which features health and illness among its themes. Using research about various bird species, as well as clinical understandings of mental disorders and their treatment, and an array of literary forms and discourses, I’m mapping various diagnostic, healing, and behavioral science tropes. Intended as a social satire, the poems feature a psychiatrist narrator who diagnoses birds with various mental afflictions. It’s also a social critique of a society that tends to over-diagnose, misdiagnose, over-medicate, etc. Among the questions these poems ask is, What does it mean to be unique, to accept pain and suffering as a fact of life that doesn’t necessarily need to be treated with medications?


  • Ewa Chrusciel is a bilingual poet and a translator. Her books in English include Of Annunciations, Contraband of Hoopoe, and Strata. She has also published three books in Polish: Tobolek, Sopilki, Furkot. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Boston Review, Jubilat, Colorado Review, Laurel Review, Spoon River Review, and more. She is an associate professor of creative writing and poetry at Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire.

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