Friday, December 10, 2010

All Parrots Speak

Paul Bowles (1910–1999)
From Paul Bowles: Collected Stories and Later Writings

During the early 1960s the New York poet and photographer Ira Cohen lived in Morocco for four years and, while there, he became friends with Paul Bowles (who was born 100 years ago this month). Cohen interviewed Bowles in 1965* and mentioned the author’s famous predilection for pet animals, resulting in a lengthy exchange about parrots, including the following bits:
Cohen: I somehow always think of you as a scorpion, with a cat somewhere in the background, a parrot maybe on its shoulder.

Bowles: I used to carry the green parrot around on my shoulder. I carried him all over the Sahara. They’re good to travel with. They’re happy, they’re not miserable traveling. You try to travel with a cat, and it’s miserable. . . .

My gray parrot lives in the kitchen in [Bowles’s wife] Jane’s apartment downstairs. It’s better for her to be with people and they worship the bird, talk to it, give it things. . . . It won’t let anyone touch it at all except Cherifa and me.

Cohen: I know it pecked a real piece out of my finger one day.

Bowles: Well, it bites everybody.
Bowles’s fondness for parrots (and his guests’ terror of them) dated back nearly three decades, when he first encountered the birds during his and his wife’s honeymoon in Costa Rica in 1938; afterward he was rarely without one or more of them. Although his household could sometimes be filled with exotic animals (the story below mentions an armadillo, an ocelot, and a tejon), he was particularly proud of his parrots, complaining in a letter to a friend about a “libelous” article that painted him “as distant, chilly, and eccentric, and, even worse, describing my parrot as skinny and featherless, which is certainly not the case.”

In 1956 he gathered some of the more memorable of his adventures as an avian aficionado in “Parrots I Have Known,” which was published in the popular travel magazine Holiday; he later retitled the piece when he included it in the 1963 travel writing collection Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue.

* Some of the interview was lost, and part of the extant portion was published in Conversations with Paul Bowles (1993).

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Parrots are amusing, decorative, long-lived, and faithful in their affections, but the quality which distinguishes them from most of God’s other inventions is their ability to imitate the sounds of human speech. A parrot that cannot talk or sing is, we feel, an incomplete parrot. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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