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Associate Editor Pamelyn Casto

A Close Reading of Robert Bly’s “Warning to the Reader

(Click on the title to read or download the Bly selection.)

Black Bird by Erich Ferdinand

This fascinating short-short is a warning addressed to me, the one planning on reading this story at this moment in time. The title certainly got my attention. The title’s effective because I am drawn to see what this warning will be and how Bly will play it out. As the reader, I am forewarned, prepared, on guard, and want to continue reading to see what sort of warning is going to come my way.

The opening sentence got my attention because it defamiliarizes my own world of preconceived notions and ideas. Bly writes that “farm granaries become especially beautiful when all the oats or wheat are gone, and wind has swept the rough floor clean.” I would have thought farm granaries are most beautiful when they are full of wheat and or oats, when they’re doing the storage job they were designed to do. But Bly sees emptiness as beautiful and I want to see what he sees. I discovered the emptiness of the granary does emphasize the images and the depicted situation quite well.

In the opening paragraph, he creates a “we” of the narrator and the reader. We stand around and we see strips of light between the cracks and shrunken wall boards. He informs us, in his opening paragraph, that this will be a poem about imprisonment and the effect of seeing a little light.

In the second paragraph, he poses a disturbing question: “But how many birds have died trapped in these granaries.”

He describes the actions of a trapped bird. It “flutters up the walls and falls back again and again.” Like the bird, when trying to escape something we are often drawn to the light. We often believe the light we find in various situations will show us the way. We seek enlightenment and seek a way out of our trap.

With the thought offered to the reader of how many birds have been trapped and died in these granaries, the poem turns a little more disturbing. It’s clear that seeking the light isn’t helping the bird escape its imprisonment. That’s a good and common image of a bird flapping up and down trying to get out– one we’ve likely all seen take place, the fluttering behavior of a trapped and frightened bird. Effective too is the use of consonance in all the “l” sounds combined with “s” sounds.

The narrator then tells us that “the way out is where the rats enter and leave. But the rat’s hole is low to the floor.” The rat’s hole, beyond the bird’s perspective, is not an escape route the confused and panicky bird will make use of. The hole is there but the bird’s preconceived notions, its belief system keeps it from finding an escape from this imprisonment.

While the narrator first addresses the reader in the opening of the story, he then addresses the writer, urging writers to “be careful then by showing the sunlight on the walls not to promise the anxious and panicky blackbirds a way out!”

In other words, in our lines of poetry or fiction, we’re not to make promises that won’t or can’t be kept. No easy fixes or solutions are wanted or desired. The sunlight on the walls is deceptive to the now panicky bird and seeking the light is what leads to its demise. “Beware,” says the narrator, since readers “who love poems of light may sit hunched in the corner with nothing in their gizzards for four days, light failing, the eyes glazed . . .”

The piece then ends with a disturbing image—a silent mound of feathers and a skull on the open boardwood floor.” The granary is still empty except for the image of the feathers and skull. All the while there was the rats’ hole for escape but the bird couldn’t see it since it was in a sense “blinded by the light”—destroyed by its belief system.

This can also be the reader, the seeker of the light, who can find no way out of this imprisonment prose poem, and like the unfortunate bird, avoids the dark and down close to the floor—the alternative possibility. The reader who loves poems of light can end up in the same state as the bird—a silent mound of feathers and a skull. Be on guard. Beware!

Bly’s powerful short-short gave my mind a good workout. I always appreciate those stories that give me no easy exit, that show me that what I might believe isn’t always the best for me to believe. His tiny story is potent that way. And best of all, it’s not easy to forget.


About the writer:
Pamelyn Casto
twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, and Writing World (and elsewhere). Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new book Critical Insights: Flash Fiction. Subscribe to her free online monthly FlashFictionFlash newsletter (first issue published in 2001) for markets, contests, and publishing news for flash literature writers. Casto is an Associate Editor at O:JA&L.

About Robert Bly: Robert Elwood Bly (1926-2021) was an American poet and essayist, a social activist and leader of the mythopoetic men’s movement.

Image: Black Bird by Erich Ferdinand (German contemporary). Fine art photograph. Camera manufacturer, Panasonic. Camera model, DMC-TZ61. Exposure time, 1/200 sec (0.005). F-number, f/5.7. ISO speed rating, 100. Date and time of data generation, 11:16, 8 December 2014. Lens focal length, 50.5 mm. By free license.

OJAL Art Incorporated, publishing since 2017 as OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters (O:JA&L) and its imprint Buttonhook Press, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation supporting writers and artists worldwide.

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