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August 23, 1987|ALEX RAKSIN

Bird of Life, Bird of Death: A Political Ornithology of Central America, Jonathan Evan Maslow (Dell: $6.95). It's one thing to rise above the fray, but Jonathan Maslow's decision to chase after a resplendent bird in a country where death squads kill thousands yearly seems more suspicious than noble. Like the European naturalists of the 18th Century, Maslow says he was inclined to view the quetzal, an intensely colorful bird, as a product of the aborigines' vivid imagination and had to head south to see if it really existed. But, elsewhere in the book, Maslow confesses that he has felt "drawn to Central America to write about politics." It seems likely that his strained skepticism about the bird is a journalistic device, a way of empathizing with American readers who tend to dismiss political events in the embattled region as unverifiable.

Be that as it may, Maslow's liberal politics never become strident, and soon the unlikely mix of ornithology and politics seems as natural as the cloud-shrouded, verdant green forests where the quetzal resides. As the national symbol of Guatemala, the red-bellied bird seems strikingly inappropriate (its shape and color suggesting liberty, not "the shrill, defiant liberty of the eagle, but the serene and innocent liberty of the child at play"). As a symbol of the residents' dreams, however, the quetzal soars, for local rumors have it that the bird's spirit will lead the entire animate world to salvation. Maslow's concern for the quetzal, later chapters show, is well founded, for it might become extinct if government-sponsored developers continue to raze its habitat. And, while the author never seems to put his finger on it, there is a direct connection between science and politics in Guatemala in the lack of concern for all things natural shown by Guatemala's leaders. They have embraced industry, one product of the Enlightenment, while neglecting another, the rationalism embodied in science--and necessary for democracy. The nation's neglect is symbolized by its tiny Museum of Natural History, a small, unmarked clapboard shed in a yard full of tall weeds.

The Poet's Craft: Interviews From the New York Quarterly, edited by William Packard (Paragon House: $10.95). Founded in 1969 as a reaction against entrenched university poetry journals, the New York Quarterly first huddled in literary left field, emphasizing "presentational immediacy." Today, under editor William Packard, it has become both spicy and serious, exhibiting and examining a wide range of work--erudite, homespun, silly, mean, compassionate, mystical. The lively discussions with leading American poets featured in these pages are organized around "The Craft Interview," which, says Packard, tries to "address the circumstances of an artist's work, and not the work itself." Packard contrasts it to the Opinionated Interview ("Do you believe in God?, Mr. Shakespeare?") and the Gossipy Interview ("Shakespeare, just who was the Dark Lady of the Sonnets?").

To the book's credit, however, Packard often sets aside his rigid ideals in these interviews, querying poets about purpose as well as craft. James Dickey, for instance, lambastes Allen Ginsberg and Robert Bly for welcoming fashionable social and political opinions into their writing ("That has nothing to do with poetry"), while Ginsberg quotes from poets who hold the most power over him, such as Edgar Allen Poe ("Hear the sledges with the bells--Silver bells!"). In all of the interviews, one theme remains dominant: how to capture what Ginsberg calls "the lightning in the mind." Trust your instincts, say these poets, from Gary Snyder ("Stand in the brush, and then become motionless, and then things begin to come alive") to Denise Levertov ("You can smell the poem before you can see it. Like some animal").

The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $14.95). "Though there is no water in the Gravelly Sea," reads a typical entry, "fish unlike any others are found here, and a solid river made of undulating, precious stones flows into it three times a week from the inland mountains." What's first striking about this book is its matter-of-fact way of describing the otherworldly, from Richard Brautigan's land of "iDeath," where black watermelons are used to make silent clocks, to L. Frank Baum's "Land of the Whimsies," where peasants wear large pasteboard masks to hide the fact that they have "very few brains." But this book's simplicity is deceptive, for the authors subtly alter tone and style to suit each individual entry, turning what would be a mundane reference text into a lively, opinionated ethnography of the unreal.

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