Magnetic Migratory Bird Woman by Valerie Marie Arvidson


Here in New Zealand
the light is scrubbed clean by the winds
and the winds are scraped clean by the light
by the southerlies
cold with Antarctica’s ice-sheets
seething with blue and white, like a hiss through teeth
shifting and scented with briny snow
even in summer here
where January is July.

Here the dampness is invisible
Sometimes it floats a fog
over the convex water,
a milky fish­eye.

The clouds are white eyelashes,
fluttering feathers over my view.



How did I get here?
Distance looked me in the eye and pulled a thread
and I felt the tug through my nasal passages.
Carried on a tidal wave from one haunted body of water to another.

It’s hard to travel when you’re also a collector of trash
and a pickpocket.
So there’s a lot I had to let go.

Am I like all the faces of Janet Frame, also a migratory bird,
two sided? Dipolar. Belonging now to both sides of the earth.
A Janus, Juno, Jupiter, Juturna.

I dream I’m also a dancer, a dying swan.
Like Anna Pavlova,
I have severely arched feet, weak ankles, and savage sickly eyes.
A dream-skirt like a breath of meringue glittered by the milky way, Te Ikaroa,
a trillion shimmering fish scales,
children of light,
and Magellan’s galactic clouds.

I may be more Arctic than Antarctic, for now.
More German, Russian, Swede, or Finn.
Still a guest in the South Pacific.
But slowly comfortable standing upside down.
It’s a treatment for the melancholy mind.
More oxygen to the brain.

Like Janet, will they plan to take a piece of it?
So I can sleep soundly, calm as marble, at Seacliff?

The Lagoon is dark and gloomy but diving into the depths of stories will save you.
The swan knows and keeps her head under water fishing for food and for her mate.
Always looking for her reflection.

My teeth, my sinuses ache –
But a little metal in the brain is a good thing.
Cobalt. Magnetite.
Zinc Iron Copper.
These crystals in the brain talk to me
Like a clock-and-compass.

I sense the hair on my arms softening into feathery down.
The slow elongation of my snowy neck.
The shrinking of my eyes and hardening of my nose.
The strange rise of a sixth sense, metallic on the tongue.
Headaches like two magnets vibrating across my temples.
The lights inside the stores are always too bright.

I’m constantly preening. Skittish and quick to jump to high places.
My fingers turn thin and wispy; toenails grow at twice the normal rate.
A lightening. Bones hollowing. Almost buoyant.

Every old piece of iron junk radiates with color;
Parked cars, rusted tractors,
electrical lines, telephone booths,
cell-phones and mountain peaks
speak in auroras, rainbows. Violet. Cerulean. Yellow.

The stars appear to rotate, creating celestial circles.
I listen to the wind, the waves and infrasounds waning and waxing.
All the voices and arrows led me here.

Now I’m Antipodean and perpetually short of paper.
Just because it’s blank doesn’t mean you can write on it.
Who knows if it’s a snowflake, a feather, or a puff of seafoam?
It dissolves too quickly to grasp or attack with a pen.

Here the gales and gusts accumulate into white caps on the water
And the grey warbler sings her descending song, my summer anthem.

I must write in bed, head propped on a pillow.
My neck aches as my posture morphs.

I crack my bones in the morning, create a crick-in-the-neck,
a protective spasm,
straining those ligaments across the facets.
Like mollusk muscles,
White oyster feet attached to Mother of Pearl.

I feel intuitively that if I push into the pain, against it, somehow I will push through
to the other side of it, break it open, be free of it –
or just feel it until it’s not a feeling anymore.
Every nerve eventually dies.

As a child, I was precocial, nidifugous,
ready to fledge early,
Wanted to run away, or rather wanted to perch
on the bedroom window and jump
towards the moon –
into the summer air filled
with the sweet sounds of night frogs and owls.
My spirit still wants to depart on any given warm night.

Like my neck, the days lengthen between seasons,
and a flush of hormones agitates me, fattens me, makes me sleepless.
I turn my face in the direction of my route.
This readying, a desire to flee – it has a name – Zugunruhe.
Migratory restlessness.
Tinged with Fernweh: a desire to be somewhere else— soreness for somewhere remote.
Or is this the other side of homesickness? A feeling come full circle.
Heimweh or Hiraeth. Saudade?

I feel the pull of both poles, something fierce wants out
but also wants to be held.

Often I wonder, is it a swan I’ll become or is it a snipe,
sandpiper, godwit or curlew?
A whimbrel, tern, petrel or plover,
knot, turnstone, stint, or skua?
No, a swan, black and white, with a beak as red as
the belly of a dinosaur.

And I fly, from a place of birth, a place to breed, towards another summer,
and back again.
Later I will moult, diminish,
require coffee.

Like Janet, I vanish
To follow the light
To find the calm
To melt into the murmuring.

And there are many days when there is nothing outside of language.
Through the wooden cellar door, a song, the other writers chat in secret dialect,
and I inhale the scent of loneliness,
summer camp and musty stowage.
Of slang and shanty.

And some days there is nothing outside my swan song.


In the winter briefly
blue and brown guts of houses
are damp, sticky,
like the inside of a fish-mouth.

In my house, moths are born out of the air,
eat holes in the flour-sacks,
in my possum­down sweater,
flutter out on their death flight,
all smoky fur and wing­feather;
between my fingers leaving
an ashy black smear.
Something to write on the walls with.

Here I am living in the head of Maui’s fish,
Te Upoko o Te Ika a Maui.
I can see the flex and bend of green wood,
the hills and islands across the thrashing waters of the Cook Strait,
parts of his painted canoe,
a slit, a spine
between the Pacific and Tasman.

Across the bay,
Red rusty horses, shining, sorrel,
and once­white sheep, filthy with mud and shit,
spots caught in the thorny yellow mountains of Wainui.
The timid beasts including me are riding
on the undulating backs of broke­down sea monsters.

The winds are constant here, constantly mothering,
like the mouth of a prehistoric lioness lifting you from the back of the neck,
your hair in her long pointy white teeth.
Is this protection or is she trying to rip me away?

It’s beautiful, being caught up in the raw wild, like a fish in tomorrow’s net –
Not sure what animal I am, or what part of the beast, but
it’s a prayer here; it’s the future,
12 or 13 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time.

But who is to say that this is not some other center?

A hole in the sky floats above us, shapeshifting, hopefully shrinking.
Ozone is thin here and sky­damage causes skin­damage.
New freckles appear: hello.
The constellation of Virgo on my shoulder doubles into Gemini;
My moon becomes Cancer, Aquarius, Sagittarius.

Even in winter, I scuttle from sunburn like a crab, seeking shadow,
but then when cold
I bathe in the yellow rays like something reptilian.
Perfectly still, a tuatara, hiding my third eye.
And then the hot water from the tap fills in around me.
I restore myself in the water, the steam.
The languid buzz of the black fly makes me stiffen,
lick my lips.
Maybe I’m a raptor,
mothered by Archaeopteryx the Urvogel.

I become stranger to myself each day there are sunny fine spells.
The wind whips the light around;
The trees, the street, and me,
we are disguised, painted in dappled green shadows.

I open and close the wooden post­box, checking for letters,
for news from America.
Inside, along the back wall, a giant cricket creature has made his bed.
At night, though he is deinacrida, terrible grasshopper from Gondwanaland,
he hides from the little owl, Ninox novaeseelandiae,
the ruru, the boobook,
who lives in the lemonwood tree and hunts him and sings me to sleep,
hoo hoo
++++++hoo hoo.

The water in the nautilus­shaped harbor is always
moving, always eroding slowly what lies at the edges,
even me, but I am grateful also to be scrubbed clean by water, by wind.
The salt is the perfect amount of sting.

My feet are on volcanic land, a tectonic plate.
The rocks are organic here,
moving at the same speed fingernails grow.
Suddenly in shudders. Is it the wind or the planet? Is it me?
Is it my mother shouting and stomping from above,
In the northern hemisphere?

Here, in this clean light, you can see more stars,
Is that what I came here for?

To see better
the traces of things erased
on the other side of the world.



I came because I was scared, am scared
And because I was brave,
Am brave.

Instead of dying, I came here, left there,
erased myself from one place
put down pencil in another.
in the world upside down and prettier.

I followed the birds South
instead of crashing into a wind turbine, we split in half,
the V became two I’s,
a wing in each of the hemispheres.

What’s been erased is hidden most of the time;
most empty spaces get replaced with new words,
new cars, new friends, new wives.

I am tired (always). I escape. I procrastinate.
I will wash all the floors and windows,
preen my entire head and body,
like the South Pacific parrots that look into my window,
before looking in the mirror,
before looking at the page.

This is the land of the long white cloud, the bright long day,
say it with your tongue out, wiggling, and your eyes wide as two mouths.
Say it like you are breathing in and out, saying ow, saying whoa,
lips a little numb,
ah oh ow.
Ah oh tay ah ro ah.
Knowing it’s not quite right, though you rolled your R.

And this is the land of birds. Parrots, pigeons, seabirds,
and those who are flightless.
Other kinds of creatures don’t belong.
I’m just here to watch and remember what’s passing through,
what’s staying put,
and what’s not here.

It seems that migratory birds have a good sense of the world;
the compass is in the eye and the map is in the nose.
Migratory women require paper, clothes,
books and roses.

The more time I spend here,
the more I mimic the birds,
maybe I’ll find out for certain whether they,
really do always go,
ever go
or just away for a little while.


No wonder lost:
And no wandering.
The mind of a bird, of a woman,
is made of wonder, home,
and the hunt,
appearing as wander lust.

Even in a Wellington raincloud, white as the inside of a bird’s hollow bones,
white as the feathers beneath its mother’s wings,
protected from the wind, home sick and sick of home;
it smells of mother here, everywhere.

(Am I unraveling?
Wool yarn being pulled off a loom by a bird’s little curved beak?
It’s for the best,
so I can re­knit myself, make a new pattern.)

don’t (usually) get lost,
their god­given
directions from Nature
or devil­given magnetic “map”
and a compass made of black magic crystal magnetite inside their beaks.

A black arrow on their tongues pulls and pushes between the poles,
between the wobble and suck of the arctic
and the spit of the Antarctic,
and the birds make an arc over land and sea, over the long­distance
Earth field,
for example, thousands of miles,
from New Zealand to Chile, and someday back.

Slowly, someday, the two wandering eyes of north and south
will reverse again.

Do we all end up where we don’t belong?
Following the beautiful auroras and secret messages in the stars
that make our joints ache and our eyes water.

And where does it come from, this instinctive melancholy of migrators,
this malaise,
this madness that makes us leave.
We try to get away and we keep getting more.

Here, I learned where the wind comes from,
not where it goes.
It scatters.
I know by the direction of the white­capped waves if I’ll be warm or cold.
I don’t need a map anymore.

In the atmosphere
you might find home.

Without magnetic storms, the pigeons
descended from wild rock doves
might find their lofts, or roosts,
several thousand miles away.

Birds carry messages for us
from the sun gods, from the center of the earth,
from asteroids and from stars inside their veins.

Only mammals and birds
have warm blood.

We find a clot of it, wine red, in the orange double yolk.
My friend says she has trouble eating the eggs
now that she keeps birds. Knows them by name.
I nod and say I understand.
But I still love the taste.

Each egg I lay, I give a great cry, a warbling hiss of cymbals.
And shiver. My ballerina knees quiver and my toes nibble the floor
Until the pain departs.


I haven’t dreamed in years. Or is this a dream, this place?
Am I really in the middle of nowhere?

The birds are piling them up somewhere, my dreams,
like brightly colored bits of rubbish, melting plastic,
bottles bobbing on the waves.
Maybe on an island, or in that great pacific garbage vortex.

There the birds are screaming. The seagulls, albatrosses, petrels,
are squawking with power, with dying,
saying get away, saying come here,
saying feed me or fight me.
On this swirling heap of discarded pleasures.
Isn’t that where I’d go, too, if I could?



If you place us, the birds,
in a wooden tunnel with magnetic coils on the outside;
if you make an experiment taking away our sixth sense,
what happens?
We become impaired.

I know what it’s like to be caught in a tunnel of magnets,
disturbed by sadness, loss,
even on a Pacific island of paradise.

What if every living thing that navigates using magnetite,
whales, sharks, tuna, trout, sea turtles, mollusks
lost her way,
found herself on a foreign beach
moaning muted by the sonic booming
of planes soaring overhead.

Everyone looks up— in awe of human flight– what a miracle, what a gift.
Some pilots go mad; some planes run out of fuel and
end up on foreign beaches, too,
or nowhere to be found.

The skin beneath my wedding band is white and shiny,
as if it’s been under water all this time.
The paleness imprinted by the metal frightens me,
what the delicious metal does to me, pulls in me.

It tastes of the Baltic,
and I am sea­sick with love for that ring from Maarianhamina,
Ahvenanmaa, Suomi, 1859,
made of rose­gold on another set of islands, long ago,
where my dream bird, sielulintu, waits
and guards my soul as I sleep.
She’s ready to carry it to Tuonela
or to the egg in the water
when I die.

Here or there, my hands,
and the back of my neck,
will always be cold,
so, I’ll always need a cuppa hot tea to hold.


Watch the paths of birds:
the magnetic fields become visible curves.
Our memories are suspended between the poles.
Why keep images of home inside such a small skull when the atmosphere
can carry them for you?

I put home on repeat even as I shed myself of it.
I’m prone to repetition and romance. Narcolepsy and amnesia.
I’m prolix, discursive; prone to the occasional disassociate fugue.
Prone to periphrasis and ekphrasis.
Rashes and pruritus.
I can only wear silver or gold.

I sing the same song
of myself.
And like a good American poet, I do contradict myself.
I loaf in the sunlit leaves of grass and fail to know
where I went, where I go,
But feel someone, somewhere is waiting for me.

Like birds, we have cryptochromes, hidden colors, in our eyes.
We are sensitive to blue light, and circadian in nature,
and also, almost imperceptibly, we are magnetically inclined.

Do humans also grow towards the light, bend towards hidden waters,
the poles, like plants, like birds?

I swivel my office chair towards the cool yellow east in the morning,
to the warm orange west in the afternoon.

I need a room with many windows, or I think I’ll suffocate;
can’t photosynthesize the sublime.
But I’m always thirsty; there’s never enough water, wind, or light.
Birds fly across the picture window view,
alight on the branches of the kowhai.
Starlings, Tui, Kingfisher.
Eat berries.
Sing and chatter all day.
I keep the wooden door closed. Maybe the other females don’t like me.
I stare too long at them. I am unnatural in my gaze.
My flock is slow to follow. My feathers slow to show.

Are we all just witches waiting, seething, jealous?
Eventually we will form a coven of love and fly together through the night.
Our brooms stand ready in the locked closet.
A mirror hangs on the back of the door.
Each, when alone in the room, tries to see through to the other side.
Wiggles the cold metal doorknob. Believes that it’s mine.
My place is inside there somewhere.
And when no one’s here, when no one (else) is looking,
we dance, we fly, instead of write.

My office is like an empty ship but for me and a few other ghostly writers;
It’s quiet but for our tapping;
I’m perched on the side of a small mountain, poised as if on a wave.
The wood is one hundred years old, maybe older;
It smells of the sea, of sand, of rot;
The latrine is in the cellar, cold and damp.

Behind my closed door, I crack my fingers;
I crack my neck until there is no more air in my joints left to pop.
I twist my spine. My computer chair spins ‘round.
I see a bird in the mirror. The one I drew on the whiteboard.
I can’t write though words spill forth,
and my cup runneth over with sea and sky.

If I were a bird, would I circle around endlessly if given the chance,
chasing the sun, or would I fly across the sea in a perfect path?
Would I get lost and go looking,
for my life­long mate, for my mother, for my chicks,
with their soft white feathers waiting,
And me, just a roving eye moving towards a roving home?

Erase a bird’s mind with a magnet. Is a bird still a bird if it’s lost?

Who has she become?



i. Illustration by Arthur Rackham from Earl Mar’s Daughter in Some British Ballards, 1919. Public domain.

ii. “…and from their haunted bay / The godwits vanish towards another summer. / Everywhere in light and calm the murmuring / Shadow of departure; distance looks our way; / And none knows where he will lie down at night.” By Charles Brasch from “The Islands” by way of Janet Frame in Towards Another Summer.

iii. Transformed image from illustration by Arthur Rackham from Earl Mar’s Daughter in Some British Ballards, 1919. Public domain.

iv. Transformed image from illustration by Arthur Rackham from Earl Mar’s Daughter in Some British Ballards, 1919. Public domain.

v. Cropped images of ballerina Anna Pavlova (b. 1881 – d. 1931). Photographs taken by Arnold Genthe, c. 1915. Accessed via The AMICA Library. Courtesy the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain.

A story version of this poem appeared in Capital issue 38 (Jan/Feb 2017).




Valerie Marie Arvidson writes hybrid literature that sometimes includes pictures. Her writing has appeared online or in print with Capital, Headland, Drunken Boat, The Seattle Review, Blunderbuss Magazine, Anomalous Press, Apt, Hunger Mountain, and elsewhere. She is from Boston but lives in Wellington, NZ with her husband. She is currently pursuing her Creative Writing PhD at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University. Read more at her website.