Oyster Boy Review 20  
  Summer 2012
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Aaaaw to Zzzzzd: The Words of Birds, North America, Britain, and Northern Europe

Jeffery Beam

  Aaaaw to Zzzzzd: The Words of Birds, North America, Britain, and Northern Europe.
John Bevis.
MIT Press, 2010.
144 pages, $12.95 (hardcover).
ISBN: 0262014297

In Aaaaw To Zzzzzd: The Words of Birds, London poet and book artist John Bevis takes Gilbert White's maxim to heart: "The language of birds is very ancient, and like other ancient modes of speech, very elliptical: little is said, but much is meant and understood." This one of my favorite books of the last decade—a useful, pocket-sized guide to bird calls and songs, and yet a work of poetry, a lexicon as witty and elliptical as bird song itself. Not only pretty, the book is quirkily so, illustrated by Bevis's black and white photographs that seem to have nothing to do with the book text nor the photographic captions—but upon closer observation work like concrete poems—saying little, but meaning more. Photograph nine shows two well-manicured backyards separated by a hedge—perhaps one yard is an orchard, the other includes a small stone well. The hedge, the orchard trees, the well, the punctuated shrubs in the yard, one circular bed of plants, the barn-like roof top in the background, the regular mower paths in the grass—and the caption: "There is a wide variety in the purity and character of the notes." Another photograph of an orchard carries the caption "The quality of song may be affected by weather, season, time of day, and locality." One can't help but think of how that orchard experiences its changes, and what different birds may visit there.

Bevis expands on his earlier limited, legendary, and rare edition from Simon Cutts and Erica Van Horn's Coracle Press, An A-Z of Bird Song, which I had been searching for for years. The elegant eccentricity of Simon's vision is apparent in this edition too—from the use of those photographs and captions, to the pocket size.

Bevis seeks "for the first time to collect, sift, and standardize these wonderful, bizarre words with their anarchic spellings, absurd pronunciations, and uncertain meanings . . . There is a separate list of some of the better-known mnemonic phrases that use English, rather than bird, words. Appendices describe the history of alternative attempts to collect bird songs and sounds, from musical composition through recording devices to duck calls, bird organs, singing bird automata, and varieties of bird clock."

But this little volume, not only packed full of sounds, also includes a number of entertaining essays on bird singing, reading about birds, "What's So Special About Birds?" and other reveries. Aaaaw to Zzzzzd: the Words of Birds makes Peterson's Guide seem wearily old-fashioned. As the northern saw whet owl might say, "too too too too too too!" "Oh dear me," says the golden-crowned sparrow, "cheerily, cheerily, be we glad," says the British robin, and "zink" (plumbous vireo) "zip" (northern parula) "coo-lee coo-lee (common loon). I couldn't agree more.

. . .