Catholicboy.com
 
Support CatholicBoy.com!
$
The Jim Carroll Website Home > Research > Academic Studies > Biography of "Sick Bird" by Jim Carroll

Biography of a Poem:"Sick Bird" by Jim Carroll

In my scholarly work on Jim Carroll I have always taken particular interest in the ways in which Carroll's works differ from one printing to another. He is a very careful and meticulous writer who tends to keep rewriting, reworking, and recycling individual pieces, often over periods of several years. For the most part, the only evidence of this process is in the work he has published in literary magazines prior to collecting them in books (see the primary bibliography on this website). But Carroll is also perpetually on tour, reading his work to live audiences in bars, clubs, and colleges, and testing out new works-in-progress. With the help of my own hand-held tape recorder and generous friends giving me copies of their bootleg videos and audiotapes, I have been able to start constructing a sort of history of Carroll's works-in-progress as they grow from initial idea to their polished, final form (if there is such a thing).

The poem "Sick Bird," published in Carroll's 1998 book Void of Course (pages 24-26), is the first piece I have been able to watch unfold from birth to final publication. Carroll's revision process in this poem is quite dramatic!

The first time I saw this poem was on February 21, 1996, in Bowling Green, Ohio, when Jim wrote out in longhand "something" for me to put on the website. The "something" was part of a new poem he had just begun writing. The verse is below (see also the handwritten version). I will refer to this piece as "phase one" and display it in red.

UNTITLED
Bowling Green, Ohio
2/21/96

Have you isolated
Your rage?
and what route have
you designated

to dispose of it?

How often do you / in a day /

fear
losing it all?

Don't worry, don't
worry, you'll get home

Just remember

to keep the river
on the right.

Four months later, in June of 1996, Jim read this poem in Minneapolis, MN. While I don't know if he had written all of this version in February, the original verse he transcribed for me finds its place at the end of a longer poem. I will refer to this version as "phase two," and again I am displaying the original verse in red. For clarity's sake, the new verse is displayed in two colors, green and blue, so that I may point out what remained in subsequent revisions.

UNTITLED
Minneapolis, MN
6/18/96

Listen to Carroll read this

I admire your trend
Do you know where I could get one?
Do you wanna sell yours?


The positions we use when making love
Determine the next day's weather

Tomorrow it will rain

Don't you care that each time the telephone rings
A green sea turtle dies

Are you in fear that you have not fulfilled it all by now?

Was Rene right?
I mean don't you long some nights
for your complacent scene to be conquered?

It's time you began to dissolve a comfort of your separation
Now and with grace
Before the hinges shoot loose in distress of the longing hordes
the homeless, the Pakistanis, the Freemasons in their high-backed chairs

Have you isolated
Your rage?
and what route have
you designated

to dispose of it?

How often do you / in a day /

fear
losing it all?

Don't worry, don't
worry, you'll get home

Just remember
to keep the river
on the right.

A year later, in September 1997, Carroll returned to Minneapolis and read the poem again, introducing it by saying, "Actually I must have written this poem like right after I was here last time, because I make mention of this very place." This version is "phase three." The original "phase one" verse (in red above) has been omitted, as has everything from "phase two" except what is indicated in blue. New material in "phase three" is displayed in orange and the default font color so that I can point out what is changed in the next revision.

UNTITLED
Minneapolis, MN
9/27/97


The positions we use when making love
Determine the next day's weather


Tomorrow it will rain
Then heat lightning by evening

Every time the telephone rings
A green sea turtle dies

And a phlegmatic guilt chants across your day

A butterfly on the Nile bank sucks the saline fluid from a crocodile's eye
Awakening the beast whose rising tail changes slightly the course of the river
Causing a short bridge of rotting acacia wood to fall under the weight of a yellow Fiat
Whose passengers are fortunately unharmed


A blond woman with a silver tongue stud and gold rings
Above her left eye lights a cigarette with a candle
In the VIP lounge of a club in Minneapolis
And the candle drips wax to the red carpet, somehow causing
On the nearest body of water
a lone fisherman
To slip on some odd substance, falling overboard and drowned
Eventually eaten by his own propeller
While a child from a lake tribe
Kneeling in his canoe
Watches in distance and mist
Unable to do a thing for him
He mutters, "That poor man,"
And paddles through the reeds
Skimming the surface with a plank
Continuing to harvest wild rice from the surface of Glacier Lake

A popular character actress removes her Emerald brooch
After a banquet to raise money
For the twin benefits of Los Angeles runaways
And the Dalai Lama's return to Tibet.

By her simple actions, undoing the clasp
The Dailai Lama stubs his left foot on a cabinet in his room
At the San Francisco Zen Center's guest house, 800 miles up the coastline
Causing alarm among the Roshi and initiates, and a marlin-blue swelling
On the big toe of the gentle Lama, who meditates the pain to Maya

While in a cluttered shop in the thin streets of Milan, Italy,
Its floor filled with rosewood shavings
The air cramped with Oak dust,
The man who built the cabinet
On which the Dalai Lama's foot was stubbed
Slumps over his workbench with a cerebral hemorrhage.
He is dead.
It had been growing a long while in his mind.
It was simply a matter of time.

And a young Norwegian film student
Decides to title his short film
It Was Simply a Matter of Time.
It has nothing to do
With time, however, nor the dead
Italian cabinet maker, nor the Dalai Lama's foot

A mosquito sucks the blood of a post-Soviet Baltic girl
And she falls in love with a balding Armenian
Who assures her that only girls with strong sexual drives are chosen by these insects
The mosquito dies and provides a small meal to a starving bird.

That bird's song awakes me in New York at 5 A.M.
I shiver with a sudden sense of dread because the mosquito
Which it ate was poisoned by the blood of the girl which it bit
Because she was imbibed with lies and designer drugs and so the bird is sick and it sings off key
As it jars me from sleep, and the room is folding over
Darker as I rise and I know a change is coming & bad & soon writing this poem

Finally, one year later, in October 1998, Carroll published Void of Course, which contains the poem "Sick Bird." Still only 25 words remain from "phase two" (shown in blue). The orange stanza from "phase three" ("A butterfly . . .") and several other orange phrases from phase three have been omitted. Additionally, there are two new stanzas and other smaller changes, which I've displayed in black. Aside from these changes, most of "phase three" remains intact. One of the editorial changes Carroll made was to the line, "the bird is sick and it sings off key"--he omitted "is sick and," which is interesting because the published title is "Sick Bird." I've marked omitted words/phrases with orange asterisks "*".

Sick Bird
Void of Course (1998)


The positions we use when making love
Determine the next day's weather

Tomorrow it will rain

Then heat lightning by evening

Every time the telephone rings
A green sea turtle dies

And a phlegmatic guilt chants across your day

The side of your head
Where you part your hair
Dictates the direction
The trees lean
Left or right
In the yard out back

A poor Mexican teenager in the Texas panhandle
Is suffering from a venereal disease
And as he urinates in his bathroom the pain
Is too much to bear, so he smashes his closed fist into the plaster
Leaving a hold there and he discovers a shelf within the wall
Filled with stacks of fifty-dollar bills left behind by a drug dealer perhaps
Who departed in haste and so he is rich for a lifetime
Because of pain and urine


A blond woman with a silver tongue stud and gold rings
Above her left eye lights a cigarette with a candle
In the VIP lounge of a club in Minneapolis
And the candle drips wax to the red carpet, somehow causing
A lone fisherman on an upstate lake
To slip on some odd substance, falling overboard and drowned
Eventually eaten by his own propeller
While a child from a lake tribe
Kneeling in his canoe
Watches in distance and mist
Unable to do a thing for him
He mutters, "That poor man,"
And paddles through the reeds
Skimming the surface with a plank
Continuing to harvest wild rice from the surface of Glacier Lake

A popular character actress removes her Emerald brooch
After a banquet to raise money
For the twin benefit of Los Angeles runaways
And the Dalai Lama's return to Tibet.

By her simple actions, undoing the clasp of the brooch
The Dailai Lama stubs his left foot on a cabinet in his room
At the San Francisco Zen Center's guest house, 800 miles up the coastline
Causing alarm among the Roshi and initiates, and a marlin-blue swelling
On the big toe of the gentle Lama, who meditates the pain to Maya

While in a cluttered shop in the thin streets of Milan, italy,
Its floor filled with rosewood shavings
The air cramped with Oak dust,
The man who built the cabinet
On which the Dalai Lama's foot was stubbed
Slumps over his workbench with a cerebral hemorrhage.
He is dead.
It had been growing a long while in his mind.
It was simply a matter of time.

And a young Norwegian film student thoughtlessly
Decides to title his short film
It Was Simply a Matter of Time.
It has nothing to do
With time, however, nor the dead
Italian cabinet maker.*

A mosquito sucks the blood of a post-Soviet Baltic girl
And she falls in love with a balding Armenian
Who assures her that only girls with strong sexual drives are chosen by these insects
The mosquito dies and provides a small meal to a starving bird.

That bird's song awakes me * at 5 A.M.
I shiver with a sudden sense of dread because the mosquito
Which it ate was poisoned by the blood of the girl which it bit
Because she was imbibed with lies and designer drugs and so the bird * sings off key
As it jars me from sleep, and the room is folding over
Darker as I rise and I know a change is coming & bad & soon writing this poem


I can only wonder what this poem would have looked like if his publisher hadn't given him a deadline!

   

Site Map | Contact Info | About this site | About the webmaster

The Jim Carroll Website © 1996-2017 Cassie Carter