Friday, January 22, 2016

Does Nikki Moustaki find redemption in THE BIRD MARKET OF PARIS?

Christal Cooper

All excerpts given copyright privilege by Nikki Moustaki and Henry Holt Company LLC

1,637 Words

                                            Nikki at the Miami Book Fair International
                                            November 2015

The Inevitability: Stars As Birds 
Poet & Animal Writer Nikki Moustaki Hopes To Find Redemption in The Bird Market of Paris

In my imagination, birdsong filled the market, waving and swelling like smoke, sunlight bathing each feather to a glisten, down to the shaft where the feather anchors into the wing.  Pullets, canaries, and finches playing with the afternoon light, an iridescent sheen bouncing from their tightly groomed feathers.  Roosters with feathers on their feet.  Pigeons with tails spreading up and out like an Andalusian lady’s fan.  I didn’t know these birds, but Poppy’s talk made them irresistible.  That’s the way I’ll love them, too, I thought, when I’m old enough to go to Paris.  It was as inevitable as the stars, which were birds after all.

Excerpt, page 15

                                          Painting by Jan Portielje (1829-1908) and
                                          Eugene Remy Maes (1849-1931).

       Nikki Moustaki’s first memoir, The Bird Market of Paris, was published on February 10, 2015 by Henry Holt And Company LLC.
The Bird Market of Paris centers on Moustaki’s relationship with her Grandfather Soli Moustaki, whom she calls Poppy.  Poppy is a great storyteller who tells his only grandchild about his experiences with birds and visiting The Bird Market of Paris.

                    Poppy and Nikki, age 5

He was a gifted raconteur, telling stories over and over, each time adding another tiny detail, embellishments like sequins on a dress.  He talked a bit about Egypt, about the green talking parrots that lived in the palace and about the superior nature of Cairo’s fruit and vegetables, but most of all, Poppy overflowed with stories about Paris, the city’s broad sidewalks where ten people could walk shoulder to shoulder, and the lazy afternoons sitting in cafes, people watching.  Rarely did I hear about the Pyramids of Giza or the Sphinx.  He was taken with Paris, and through his stories I was taken with it, too.  He said he would take me there someday.

Excerpt, Page 14

       The Bird Market of Paris, though a memoir, is comparable to Torey Hayden’s fiction novel The Sunflower Forest, where seventeen-year old Lesley adores her mother as much as Moustaki adores Poppy; and like Poppy tells her about The Bird Market of Paris, Leslie’s mother tells her daughter about The Sunflower Forest.

       Both Leslie and Moustaki carry these places in their hearts and it is in these two places and the love they have for their mother and grandfather that help them endure the hardships in life.

       There are differences: The Sunflower Forest is a fiction novel with a “shattering” end in which Leslie finally travels across the globe to see The Sunflower Forest only to discover that The Sunflower Forest never existed.

Like Leslie in The Sunflower Forest, Moustaki plans to go to Paris, France to see the The Bird Market of Paris Poppy saw.  But does it exist, or is it like The Sunflower Forest, a place that only exists in the imagination of the one Nikki Moustaki adores and loves?

                        Toddler Nikki eating a cookie

       Nikki Moustaki is proud of her Greek and Jewish heritage she inherited from her paternal Grandfather Poppy, who passed on a passion of life and a passion of love for birds to his only grandchild.  Because of this heirloom or inheritance she received from her Poppy, Moustaki describes her life as a birdsong soundtrack album that is ingrained in her genetic makeup.

                                             Nikki's first day of preschool.

       I always believed that my affinity for birds was inherited, or at least contagious.  In Corfu, at the end of the nineteenth century, Poppy’s father had a white cockatoo that sat on the wall in his courtyard and called each family member by name.  Poppy’s father passed the “bird gene” to Poppy, who as an adult, sat in an outdoor table at CafĂ© Riche in Cairo, beckoning to the Egyptian sparrow merchants who sold the little birds for food.  He would buy several cages for the doomed creatures, fifty to a tiny crate, and as dusk fell over Cairo, Poppy and his only children, my father, would set the birds free from the balcony of their apartment.  Poppy passed the bird gene to my father, who was responsible for bringing many of Poppy’s birds into our world in South Florida – and for later indulging my bird hobby from beak to tail – effectively passing the bird gene to me.

Excerpt, pages 2-3

                                                  19th Vintage painting of girl and her birdcage

       Moustaki’s parents work in the garment business and in luxury car sales.  During the day, when Moustaki is not attending school, she spends time with Poppy, who earns a living as a successful fashion designer.  It is during these times that Poppy teaches her about life via birds and expresses his undying love to her through birds.

       Poppy & Nikki, age 6, at one of his fashion shows  

He told me about the Marche aux Oiseaux, the bird market of Paris, held on Sundays in conjunction with the famous flower market and close to Notre Dame.  I heard about the bird market of Paris from Poppy so often, it became something I had to experience.
“You can hear the music of the birds a mile away,” he told me.  “The birds are a miracle, you cannot imagine such beautiful birds, the colors, the songs.” He spoke emphatically, like a man running for office, and I believed him.

Excerpt, Page 15

                                               Nikki and Comet in 1997

One of their grandfather-grandchild yearly traditions is on her birthday Poppy gives Moustaki a white dove, which she releases into the sky, a ritual she compares to that of blowing out candles on a birthday cake.

Parian Marble Stele of a girl with a white dove Greece 450 - 440 BC 

       Her love for birds intensifies when her first boyfriend gives her a baby lovebird for Valentine’s Day when she is eighteen.  Moustaki falls helplessly in love and so does Poppy, proud to finally be a great-grandfather.   Moustaki christens her first bird Bonk.  Bonk is the first of many birds in Moustaki’s love affair of great birds – resulting in her becoming a bird expert and writing for birds.  Her 25 books on the care and training of exotic birds have sold more than 350,000 copies.

Moustaki details her experience of Hurricane Andrew where she is grateful that Bonk and Bonk’s baby eggs are safe, even though she loses just about everything else.    

The back of the Moustaki Home after Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992.

In 1993, after she earns her Bachelor’s in English with a minor In Philosophy from Florida International University, Moustaki attends her first poetry workshop at Florida International University where she studies under poet Campbell McGrath and is enamored with poetry by Sharon Olds, who, at the time, is part of the New York University’s Creative Writing Faculty.    

                 Campbell McGrath  

I wanted to study at NYU because of Sharon Olds, a poet whose work explored depths I also wanted to plumb, a soft-spoken woman who penned dark, sexy, semiconfessional free verse pocked with curse words.

Excerpt, page 129.

                     Sharon Olds  

In the Spring of 1995 Moustaki submits her application, which includes ten pages of poems about birds, to New York University Master’s Degree Creative Writing program, and is accepted.    

I was twenty-four and this would be my first foray into living as an adult in the real world.

Excerpt, page 129.

       Moustaki finds comfort in alcohol  as her means of escape and the way she handles the stresses in life, which include Poppy’s illness and death.  Things only darken when she is not able to attend Poppy’s funeral.

               19th Century Vintage of Grandfather and Granddaughter 
       Moustaki graduates from NYU with a master of arts in poetry and is accepted into Indiana University creative writing program where she earns her Master of Fine Arts in poetry. 

By her second year at Indiana University, she is drinking a tall glass of Kahlua topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream for breakfast.  The results are 30 pound weight gain, an eroded central nervous system, paranoia, erratic behavior, and the isolation of friends and peers. 

                 Painting by Parker Lanier 

Despite drinking seven martinis at one setting she manages to fly to New York City and land an editorial position where she edits books on animals.

Her drinking continues until she meets a fellow bird lover and recovering alcoholic, Walden, and attends recovery meetings with him. 
       Moustaki is still not whole, still feels broken inside and seeks solace in writing – this time a ten-page poem about chickens. She applies for a grant with the National Endowment for the Arts by submitting the ten-page poem along with her artistic plan of how she would utilize the funds.  In December of 2000, she learns that her application for the NEA grant of $20,000 has been accepted. 

Nikki feeding a stray chicken on February of 2010.
       Good news can have the same affect as bad news – both bring stress and restlessness.  Moustaki’s response is to drink again, to the point where she blacks out only to be awaken by a phone call from Walden.      

       “Get up we’re going to a meeting,” he said.  He sounded way too energetic for so early in the morning.  I looked at the clock.  It was past three p.m.
       “Who is this?” I croaked, blinking in the half-light.
       “You drunk-dialed me in the middle of the night, along with most of everyone else we know,” he said.  “If you don’t want this program you don’t have to do it, but drinking isn’t working for you.”
       “I asked God to show me a sign if He didn’t want me to, and He didn’t, so I drank,” I lied.
       “God isn’t Santa Claus,” Walden said, “You can’t give Him orders and lists of things you want and expect them to appear.  That’s not how prayer works.  Get dressed.”

Excerpt, Page 197.

By early 2001, Moustaki finds herself at her desk holding the $20,000-check from the National Endowment for the Arts.  What Moustaki decides to do with the $20,000 is a decision based on stories that Poppy told her.  She believes these stories and the spirit of the storyteller (Poppy) will give her the redemption she so desperately needs.    

       Will her gamble pay off, or will she be like The Sunflower Forest’s Lesley, a believer in a story of lies, only to travel across the globe to discover the place she treasured never even existed, leaving her irrevocably broken?

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