Issue 28: Mark Dow


I mean, I knew I knew what it was but

the melody's recognizable but the tempo's

sped up. Speeded. Some are, yeah, but

some are slowed way down. When I first

heard it I thought it was Bach. He makes

everything sound like Bach but it wasn't.

Yeah, but the melodies, it's like he's

seeing the score three-dimensionally. It's

like one of those exploded diagrams where

you see it taken apart, a carburetor or

whatever, to see how it goes back together.

But you were saying about the blessing,

the one on sukkot. You shake the lulav,

bound palm branches, fronds, like a broom, 

once in each direction, north, south, east,

up, down I mean, I mean, you know, you

recite the bracha, the prayer, but broken up.

You have to break the rhythm of the waving

motion away from the words so you don't

shake it when you say God's name. But you're

not even supposed to say it and you said it. 

That's only the name of the name, not the

same. Anyway, you were saying you say

the bracha on a sort of legato as you bring

the lulav to the next position. Like the invocation

Santeros say to open the gates to Elegguá. Or

no, to ask him to open them for you. You mean

for you. He guards doorways and crossroads,

where possibility begins. Legba in Vodou.

Protects children too. Aren't you a Jew?

You look familiar. Like we've met somewhere

before. Between each compass point or tone's

another one and so on.  It's where time started or

starts all the time. I don't follow.  It's like you're

trying to halve it both ways. You mean have.

Whatev. You know exactly what I mean.


Bengalese finch singing from

its song-isolation box in our

Bay Area lab.  But from would

mean to, and this isn't that. What

matters to us is production and learning.

Colleagues in the birdsong field likewise

wait for zebra finch song crystallization

a continent away. Needless

to say we more easily see

in the head-fixed sleeping bird

than in the freely behaving bird

how sleep bursts of basal ganglia

activity resemble song bursts of

same; the bird brain's in rehearsal.

            The high vocal center or HVC,

            formerly the so-called song center,

            suggests we still rely on

            a music-box-like conception

            of the underlying neural mechanism

            of the structure of song. We're talking

            eight thousand nerve cells

            sending signals downstream to

seven or eight muscles making up

the vocal mechanism responsible for

the tweets and chirps and warbles

and trills and, well, all in all,

song, which we distinguish from

everything else, mere calls.

            So we insert a device

            adapted from a device

            you plug into your car's

            cigarette lighter to keep

            a Coca-Cola on a

            long drive cold

            into the air sacs inside

            the zebra finch skull.

            Bilateral cooling causes

            uniform slowing of song.

            Having localized the dynamics

            we note distinct neural substrates

            for sequence and pitch. So

from highly variable babble

through the intermediate plastic song

and on to stereotippy repeatability

the juvenile eventually matches its output

via basal ganglia feedback to what

we take to be a stored template to

clock-like patterns of adult songbird

sound. Listen and learn:

            the template holds a stable

            sensory representation

            of what the bird has heard

            in its tutor's song, which is

            what its own production

            is based on. A recovery process

            for error correction increases

            accuracy of matches, as in this don't

            sound right: adjust accordingly.

Basal ganglia reward circuits guide vocal

play toward recognizable sequence of sound,

highly structured sequences of sound. Meanwhile

the cortical loop allows each species-specific

characteristical song to unfold until it's complete.

Social context for variability awaits further study.

From talks by Michael Fee of MIT

and Michael Brainard of UC;

mistakes are my responsibility.

Mark Dow is the author of Plain Talk Rising (poems) and American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons. His poems have been in Blackbox Manifold 11, and more recently in Word for/Word, PN Review, Mudlark, and JAMA. His interviews with linguists have appeared at Language Log, and he was writer-in-residence for Evolang XI (International Conference on the Evolution of Language).

Copyright © 2022 by Mark Dow, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.