The Reincarnation of Wittgenstein, by Mary Beth O’Connor

You know how a bird’s song can be heard
as some piece of human language
like “have you had your tea, tea, tea?”

And once you hear it like that
you keep hearing it like that
and hearing it like that

This one shrieks “your apron, your apron,
your apron, your apron!”
followed, for a break, by “your hat!”

Up on its safe branch this bird
bullies the neighborhood,
especially my cat to whom

it perpetually calls, “I’m up here,
I’m up here, I’m up here,
I’m up here!”

But now all is blessedly silent.
The bird has flown away
to lord it over the earthbound elsewhere,

to remind us that language is just a game
we think we know the rules to—for,
according to experts, dogs bark to alert us,

and when we scream, “Hush! Be quiet! Stop!”
the dog hears, “Danger confirmed! What a watchdog!
Keep barking until I arrive.”


About “The Reincarnation of Wittgenstein”: “Ludwig Wittgenstein was a philosopher of language, among other things, and wrote that language comprised a system of games. As we all know, one can only play a game (satisfactorily) with others if everyone agrees to the rules, though these are arbitrary. I’ve been interested in the relationship between language and thought since I was a grad student in Anthropology back in the 70s and first read Benjamin Whorf’s essays on the differences between speakers of “standard English” and Hopi. The notion that time, for example, could be thought of differently than the way I grew up thinking about it I found enormously liberating. Then I was listening to a radio program in which an expert of canine communication mentioned that we really need to acknowledge that the dog is doing his or her job when barking at perceived dangers, and I put that together with these birds that seemed to be tormenting my cat, and, well, you know…”

Mary Beth O’Connor writes and teaches in Upstate New York. Her work has appeared in Blast Furnace, The Penduline Press, Painted Bride Quarterly, Fiction Daily, Café Irreal, Prick of the Spindle, Massachusetts Review, and others. Her prize-winning chapbook Smackdown! Poems about the Professor Business (Teachers’ Voice) was reissued in 2010.

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