Who is the Bird King?

The inspiration for the Bird King (an ambiguous creature, part man, part bird), came from numerous sources, most of which I was unconscious of when I wrote my first Bird King tweet on 6 April 2012:

The Bird King is mad again. He caws through empty midnight streets, moulting tar-black feathers.

As a child I loved Greek mythology, which abounds with hybrids of humans and animals, including, of course, the harpies. Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are depicted an anthropomorphic bird, whose virile crest and association with Max (the King of the Wild Things) made a strong impression. When I was a teenager I discovered surrealism and was intrigued by Max Ernst’s Loplop persona, and the way the artist used it to create an ironic distance between himself and his work (Loplop presents…)

I could enumerate various stylistic influences on the Bird King tweets and poems too. There’s a trace of the Ted Hughes of Crow in some of the gorier passages, and I suspect that Henri Michaux (who wrote about terrifying inner worlds with deadpan bluntness) is there too. Harry Crosby, a minor poet enamoured of Baudelaire, wrote some surrealistic pieces about a Mad Queen, and there’s no doubt that the bringing together of the notion of lunacy with that of inherited power is a very potent one, and must have been somewhere at the back of my mind when I wrote that first tweet. Meanwhile, Thomas Kyd (via T S Eliot) was very much at the front of my mind when I wrote it: “The Bird King is mad again” was a conscious echo of “Hieronymo’s mad againe.”

Finally, I should mention Shaun Tan, the artist. He published a book called The Bird King & other sketches in 2011. I didn’t know about his book (which I have not read) until someone told me about it in the summer of 2012, by which time my Bird King had flown the nest. At first I was anxious about the fact that my character had the same name as Shaun’s sketch, but I now feel sufficiently confident about the distinctiveness of my Bird King not to let it bother me. In any case, the phrase “Bird King” crops up historically in a rural French festival and in the work of some online visual artists. Also, it turns out that in 2010 an author called Michael Thompson-Renzi beat both Shaun Tan and me to it, by publishing a Kindle book called The Bird King. So the name is, in a sense, in the public domain, or at least in some sort of collective unconscious.

What follows is part two of my long poem The Death of the Bird King.

II. A Portrait of the Bird King

The Bird King cuts an impressive figure
when he’s out for a Sunday stroll!

Hands clasped
behind warped back,

beak jabbing with every
twitchy step!

He’s quite the patriarch.

The Bird King grants audience to only the most
interesting
of people. Having entertained them
and heard their stories,
he eats their brains.

Decrees, numerous
and arbitrary
are issued by the Bird King.
He bans TV, chimneys,
singing, pears.

His subjects have to wear hats
made from murderers’ teeth.

The Bird King loves his aviary.
In pretty cages: children, the homeless,
artists, lunatics.
Pigeons strut past,
cooing and chuckling.

The Bird King’s dimensions
are ambiguous.
To most people
he’s enormous;
to birds,
tiny.

It’s purely a matter of perspective.

The Bird King’s palace has no doors.
Lacking the mental apparatus
to cope with their simple mechanisms,
he smashed them all long ago.

The Bird King delivers a moving oration:
“NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING.”

—–

You can buy The Death of the Bird King here.

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