KERNPUNKT Press. 2019. 165 pages.

Reviewed by Cassia Hameline

Chelsea Biondolillo’s The Skinned Bird is a lyric and fragmented essay collection that explores the concepts of loss, leaving, and learning how to find one’s voice and place within the world. Her experimental essays collage her own words with those of others as well as photographs, ornithological details, and other ecological interventions that bring the personal and universal together. By playing with form, Biondolillo examines her own thoughts while also making room for her audience to do the same. Creating this space for readers is one of Biondolillo’s great gifts; her ability to reach each reader individually, helping them to find similarities between their own past and hers, is what makes this text stand out. She shows vulnerability in every essay and in doing so helps us all feel a little less alone as we recognize our own.

From a structural standpoint, The Skinned Bird is separated into four sections that mirror the stages of birdsong—Critical Learning Period, Silent Stage, Subsong, and Song Crystallization. By incorporating nature into her personal essays both in structure and content, Biondolillo opens the door—or window, perhaps—to the world outside one’s self. She recognizes herself in the world of birds and uses that connection to attempt to understand where she fits in life. Each section tackles a different era of the writer’s life, starting with young childhood and moving forward to the creation of her own family and home as an adult. Biondolillo finds ways to look at, understand, and find peace with her own history and memories by observing them through the lens of birds. This ornithological form matches the work’s content, making the narrative progression feel natural.

Section one, “The Critical Learning Period,” explores the writer’s memories from early life living with her father up until she and her mother left. In this section, she explores themes of trauma, abuse, and the internalization of early experiences. Right from the beginning we are offered shifting essayistic forms, such as braided narratives and listing, which immediately prepare the reader for a collection of continuing experimental shapes.

Section two, “The Silent Stage,” sifts through themes such as place and the (female) body. The writer offers somewhat graphic and unnerving images of how to skin a bird: “Start by pinching the neck and working the skin away from and over the back of the skull…use your scalpel to carefully cut through the thin membrane that connects the lids to the eyes.” These accounts lead us to and then back away from difficult memories with her father, all while using the proxy of a bird’s body to process how a woman’s body fits into her own landscape. These graphic lines not only leave the reader feeling perturbed by pain from the past but also suggest that the body is a source of vulnerability. Yet what I find most striking about this essay is Biondolillo’s blending of raw detail and grace. In many lines you’ll find small pockets of beauty, vivid and carnal yet vulnerable and fragile all the same: “After the neck is cut, you will slip the wings from their bones like a jacket.” She creates moments in which we cannot help but see in relation to our own lives—regardless of whether or not we have skinned a bird ourselves, we all know the feeling and the image of taking off a jacket. In this way Biondolillo writes us into her essays so that we may experience these moments alongside her.

“Subsong,” section three, begins to shift the essay collection towards the concept of processing memories. Here, Biondolillo explores the evolution of memory through essays that incorporate intertextuality. This shift towards memory’s fluidity sets up the final section, “Song Crystallization,” which finds peace in the unreliability and fluctuation within one’s life. Using the lens of birds, Biondolillo seamlessly parallels her own migration—from place to place, from love to love—to that of a bird: “…if I say that my compulsive fleeing is like a swallow flying year after year…it is so that I can find meaning in it, instead of shame.” In this final section, after the three prior in which she explores her traumatic past