“At some point, we realize the horrible power we have over other living things. I think we reach a certain state of grace when we tire of extinguishing life, no matter how seemingly insignificant it may be.”
Tony Fitzpatrick is a writer. He’s a hell of a writer. He’s one of my favorite writers. He is also an artist, a poet, a playwright, an actor. But I was first drawn to his essays in New City. His switchblade-sharp wit cuts up anything resembling an authority figure or conformist caveman. The Secret Birds is the latest collection of his work. After an intro by Helen MacDonald (author of H is for Hawk) and the Wallace Stevens’ poem ’13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,’ Fitzpatrick shares some thoughts of his own followed by collages of the dozens of secret birds flying around inside his head.
I was ready to review this book biased in his favor. After a few pages though, something seemed wrong. It’s not the writing. The writing is always great. You should have gotten that already. For those that have never read Fitzpatrick, he writes with punch and is deeply indebted to the Chicago canon of writers; Fitzpatrick’s name is blinking in the marquee along Algren, Sandburg, and Terkel. It’s punchy, but it’s got heart too. His language is versatile. Fitzpatrick explains why he respects owls so much: “In my life, an owl provided me with an opportunity to keep from being like everyone else. He taught me to listen and how to wait, and most importantly, how to search.” In another story he expresses how acute their sense of hearing is by their ability to “hear a mouse get a hard-on.”
A word is never minced, a politician is never praised, and he writes the dictionary on vulgarity. But his writing is heavy with humanity. He finds wonder and amusement in many things, from expanding his avian vocabulary to recalling a bartending gig in Champaign to writing haiku and death poems. He isn’t cynical, but he won’t put up with your bullshit. He sings the praises of the down and out, the forgotten, the never remembered. Birds of all kinds take flight in his stories and the accompanying art.
So no, it wasn’t the writing that felt off to me. It was the fact that some of the essays (or similar versions of) I’ve already read in This Train, published in 2010. So while this book was very familiar for me, The Secret Birds is a great introduction to those not familiar with his writing or his art. His collages command an incredible amount of attention. And to be perfectly honest, I have no problem re-reading these essays. Fitzpatrick telling a story is like hearing a friend tell a joke. You might know the punchline, but the pleasure of hearing their enthusiasm and deliberate choice of words while retelling it makes it that much better.
Currently, Fitzpatrick has an exhibition at the DePaul Art Museum. Seeing the collages next to each other, and picking apart their layers is much more satisfying in person. Each work is composed with enigmatic juxtaposition: the hobo alphabet and music notes, blank crossword puzzles and pinup girls, cards and arrows, dice and bullseyes. The collages are often bordered by cigar wrappers and matchboxes from bars that don’t exist anymore. It’s a puzzle and each piece takes time to digest. In the preface to Fitzpatrick’s second book of poetry, The Hard Angels, filmmaker Jonathan Demme describes Fitzpatrick as a “walking synergy machine,” and it’s hard to think of a better description than that.
While it’s great to see such a brilliant artist get his work in a museum, his work permeates throughout the city. Whether it’s a Lollapalooza poster from 2015, the logo for Taylor St. bar Three Aces, or the wall mural outside Bucktown tavern Red Door, his work is meant to taken in as viscerally as possible. If you’re still skeptical, see the man read his work live. It only brings his work that much more to life. At the very least, take a step outside, and keep an ear out for the birds.
Tony Fitzpatrick’s exhibit The Secret Birds will be displayed at the DePaul Art Museum through August 21st, 2016. The book The Secret Birds is out now on Curbside Splendor for $49.95. Find it at independent bookstores throughout Chicago.