I, Parrot: A Graphic Novel
Reviewed by John Biscello
“A black-sharded lady keeps me in a parrot cage.”
The power of the black-sharded lady, a cunning saboteur of a shadow-self, resides less as a jailor and more as an illusionist. She creates a phantom cage out of thin air, and conditions one to behave and function as a captive, barred from moving beyond limitations that calcify into tainted gospel. In the new graphic novel I, Parrot, written by Deb Olin Unferth and illustrated by Elizabeth Haidle, cages, both real and metaphysical, play into what is a modern-day fable on survival, fierce love, and the necessity of wing-spreading. Or, as Emily Dickinson so eloquently stated: “Hope” is the thing with feathers.
The protagonist of I, Parrot, Daphne, is a worn-out woman trapped in a single mother blues song: back rent owed, court and lawyer fees due, stretches of unemployment, and loss of custody of her son, Noah. Determined to get her life back on track, Daphne scores a gig as an assistant to Mindy Mane, a.k.a., “The Moon,” a pie-faced lady who is in the business of bringing positive thought recordings and messages to a mantra-starved, world-at-large. Yet Daphne’s real work begins, setting her destiny in motion, when she accepts the assignment of bird-sitting for “the Moon’s” forty-two exotic parrots, creatures who, like Daphne have lost touch with something wild and essential, their sovereignty eclipsed by staid conditions. The guide-book I, Parrot, which Daphne refers to for maintenance tips, sounds off like an ornithological Nietzche: “How do you think he likes being locked in a small, dark box for his entire life? Do you think you can do anything other than try unsuccessfully to keep the bird from sliding into crippling, suicidal depression, while you slowly squash every instinct he has? Failure is all you can hope for.”
Daphne’s travails with the parrots turns into an operatic fiasco, involving her boyfriend, her son, and a trio of housepainters, the three Lee Anthony’s, who could be surrealistic stand-ins for the Marx Brothers. Part of I, Parrot’s charm derives from its connection to old-school cinematic farce. You could easily imagine Buster Keaton navigating through the pitfalls of this parrot-centric episode, or Laurel and Hardy negotiating fits of cartoonish despair with fool’s grace. And, with permanent blushes branded on the cheeks of the characters, Haidle’s whimsical, Sunday-comic-strip-style illustrations perfectly underscore the narrative’s timbre. Rendered completely in gray-scale, the world through which Daphne moves strikes one as an in-between place, a Bardo waiting room preceding rebirth. There is also a fluid and dynamic sequencing to Haidle’s artwork, a kinetic spatial interplay that plays out like a sort of visual jazz.
One of the novel’s most compelling and haunting sub-plots revolves around the Passenger Pigeons. Having been declared extinct in 1914—“You might even say their extinction signaled the birth of a new era … modern art, modern weaponry, the Industrial Revolution, electric lights, the free world.”—there have been recent sightings of what may be the second coming of Passenger Pigeons. Throughout the book they appear like totemic wraiths, or Sumi-e-esque specters arranging themselves into divine patterns of symmetry. The guide-book, I-Parrot, glibly warns against the risks of intimate flocking, and cites the Passenger Pigeon as a prime example: “Consider the Passenger Pigeon. They once flew in flocks 50 large so they blacked out the sky for hours at a time, whole horizons in darkness. Look what happened to them. Our advice? Scatter.”
Daphne rejects that advice. And is empowered by a felt-sense of revelation to move beyond the margins delineated by the black-sharded lady: “I was tired of the kind of reasoning that had brought me to this point. It had done nothing for me except slowly strip away at the few things that brought me joy. The entire civilized project seemed based on an error. The birds, Laker, and especially Noah, these were my responsibility. I had to protect these few things that had been scattered in my path, save them from so-called civilization, the free world. I needed a freer world, so free it could accommodate me and my crooked army.”
In a broad, orchestral sense, I, Parrot shines a light on the amorphic gray areas that give rise to what we choose to value, honor, cherish, and protect. And how that sculpts the shape and character of the future. On a personal and primal level, I, Parrot’s heartbeat is metered to a timeless and singular force: a mother’s inviolable love for her son.
I/Parrot, by is out on Black Balloon Publishing (November 1, 2017)
Originally from Brooklyn, writer, poet, playwright and performer, John Biscello has called Taos NM home since 2001. He is the author of two novels, Broken Land, a Brooklyn Tale and Raking the Dust, as well as a collection of stories. To see more of his work, visit johnbiscello.com