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Mulan Pan | poetry

After the Javan Green Magpie, Nias hill myna, Sumatran laughingthrush, straw-headed bulbul, black-winged myna, Rufous-fronted laughingthrush, and other endangered songbirds caught and sold as pets.

    To think you can serenade the world

        Because you gilt a gramophone

                  in birdsong & ballades

And swallowed the key,

                  yet still remain wanting.


You grasp your sirens by their throats


               for more than an elegy, but

 Grief has always been the counterpoint to greed.

               The sirens hunger too.


                                                         Squeeze until every voice is snuffed;

                You would rather starve 

the entire soundscape than admit

                silence can never make you whole.


       So gorge yourself on leftover feathers & fugues

                Let the fragments burden your tongue

                         And beguile you into believing

that your stomach could have ever been satiated

by anything 

     less than the sky.

FOOTNOTES | Kicau-mania: The entering of pet birds into singing competitions in Indonesian.

When I Die, I Would Like to be Honored as if I Were a Blue Whale

Mulan Pan | poetry

Or humpback, or bowhead

toothed or baleen – I’m not picky.


Behold the corpse of a god balloon with prayers: unanswered, crowding

breathless lungs, the barnacles cling & weep

to bloated starless night;


three days to mourn. Bid the surface farewell, let seafoam scrape away eulogies

of seabird & shark; consecrated flesh in open

-mouthed beak.


Now sink


into ether, vast & faithless. These creatures do not revere the sun as we surface-

dwellers do—no, their stars are self-made, forged in 

ever-evolving hunger


& apathy. Teeth—longer than lifespans—languish in aching jaws;

in absence of circadian & sun, the pace of eternity is dictated

by the dinner bell.


But understand this: the seabed is not a resting site. Cessation of breath does

not denote sepulcher or insignificance.

When body returns to earth,

it is reborn—



Supple scale, stony shell; see how these heathens align soft against sharp against

starving when faced with fallen heaven, rejoice at this

unfathomable feast.


Writhing ribbons of rattail hagfish isopod arthropod seven-meter sleeper shark

every scavenger of the seven seas comes

to sanctify with teeth & tongue,


every inch of flesh exalted in jaws snap shut as if in prayer until

the culmination of their consecration strips blubber

down to bone


scaffolding. Cracked marble of a crumbling acropolis, slowly sundered by bone-worm & bacteria.

Not a surface they do not supplicate, no iota of bone they do not break down.

At these depths, there is no “waste,”

only worship


until nothing is left but an elegy.

An echo.


The fourth stage of whale decomposition is called the reef stage; is only postulated, 

not observed; occurs eons after the initial fall; but the archaeologists believe 

in spectral pillars shifting in the space between vertebrae

stirring ichor-stained sand.


Gaze upon barren benthos, scoop sediment & see in your cupped palms neither snow

nor scripture but fragments of a spine, & clinging to each 

ossified speck: life.


Tiny red tendrils—like grasping hands trying to find the right position to pray. Even these

sessile insentient souls understand: this land is an altar to the empty maw.


Outlined in dust & detritus—life devoted to this deity.


I am an artist, both whale & worshipper. I am no stranger to hunger.

How can I see the hallowing of flesh & marrow, fat & lipid, the veneration that consumes

every ounce—how can I see the refracted colors of rot & not want

for my own untouched page?


I want to touch the hearts of the abyss who have not known the sensation

of the sun in their mouths until my flesh

lays before them for the feasting.


I want them to gorge as they’ve never had before, so when all that is edible

is stripped, & then some, they are left

only hungrier.


I want my body to be the breeding ground of new life,

want my bones to host the epicenter of a new era,

want my legacy lining the insides

of every mouth.


I want to put my blood to paper

& watch it sink.


The fourth stage of whale decomposition is called the reef stage, because even 

when all that remains of the whale is an imprint, it is still—

so unquestionably 


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The Artist's Advice to the Aspiring Ornithologist

Mulan Pan | prose


i. Set up a bird feeder outside your window

The great thing about birds is that they’ll come flocking to any place with birdseed. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy; my first feeder was a school project slapped together with scissor-cut milk cartons and string. After a long, stressful day of kindergarten, or on a sleepy summer afternoon, I’d meander my way over to the windowsill, delighting in all the passerine passerbys. Clutching colored pencils in my stubby hands, birds were both my companions and my muse as my feathery friends decorated my cheap printer paper. I proudly declared I would one day become an artist and soar.

Back to the matter at hand. A bird feeder is a great way to attract a variety of visitors to your yard. If you pay attention, you may even be able to pick out the regulars, like those cute goldfinch mates or that talkative robin. In times where you just want a break from the demanding duties of everyday life, you can always return to your bird feeder and relish in the simple joys that it brings.


ii. Go out on hikes.

Hiking is riskier than simply observing birds from the comfort of your home; there may be times when braving through the pockets of bugs and humidity doesn’t reveal any passerine pals, but when you’re surrounded by the trees, the rustling branches and chittering bugs, that’s when you really fall in love with birdwatching. 

From third grade onwards, I started taking private art lessons at a studio. No longer could my afternoons be spent lazily waiting for the occasional bluebird to stop by for a snack. I actively sought to capture those birds on the page. I watched as chickadees and thrushes bloomed across the paper in inks and watercolors, the messy, delightful touch of a child slowly refined over weeks and months and years. 

I’m glad that those art lessons pushed me to schedule time just for hiking and birdwatching, for it taught me that blood, sweat, and tears sow greater rewards. Window watching is a fleeting, flighty sort of happiness. There’s a bone-deep kind of satisfaction that comes with knowing that what you made wasn’t just scribbled out on a whim, but carefully, meticulously rendered. It makes those birds dancing, flying, singing for you in their natural habitat all the more thrilling. Despite the mountain of eraser shavings and tapestry of bug bites, the hardships you endured along the journey are a testament to the worth of the beautiful sight at the end.


iii. Bird identification is a rabbit hole of a hobby.

It’s less about the gratification when correctly identifying a bird and more about that nagging sensation when you can’t. Once you recognize a couple species, those you can’t start sticking out like potholes that you need to fill. Besides the obvious blue jays and robins, you want to be able to spot the subtle striations of a sparrow versus a wren. You want to be able to distinguish birds not just by plumage, but by their calls too. You want to know their nesting habits, which trees are the most appealing for woodpeckers. You want a snapshot of the rare orange-crowned warbler. You want to be able to identify all the varying songs of a mockingbird. 

Once you can identify your shortcomings, it’s only natural to want to improve. It’s a kind of yearning that borders on need. I want to improve my anatomy and perspective drawing. I want to learn the shading techniques for different textures. I want to get better at capturing every fine feather filament on the paper until the final product is as lifelike as its inspiration.

I want to learn everything. I want to know everything. I want.

When you’re around birds for long enough, they start leaving bits of them behind in you. There is so much ambition to be held in their tiny bodies. I’d listen to them boldly cry out to the world, watch them zip through the canopy, and feel myself grow restless. I’d gaze up at the sky and feel my frustration at my groundedness grow.

Like birds, I can’t help but want to fly.


iv. Some days you may not see any birds at all. That’s normal.

When you’re no longer someone who enjoys watching birds but a birdwatcher—when your hobby becomes inextricably tied with you—you’ll inevitably end up unsatisfied with where you stand. Maybe there’s a rare bird that eludes you, teasing the edge of your ears but always out of sight. Perhaps you can’t quite capture the essence of birds in flight, always too blurry or too stiff. Is it your substandard tools? Lack of practice? Lack of time? Some ineffable, intangible, but irrefutable part of you that simply isn’t good enough? 

The better you get at something, the harder it is to meet your rising standards. Around the time I grew more serious about art, I started spending more time in the studio polishing pieces to submit to competitions, all centered around topics like “dreams” or “holidays” or “vacation.” The subject matter wasn’t important; what was important was that some of my drawings won, and I had to improve if I wanted to keep winning. How could I call myself an artist if my compositions were not dynamic, my rendering not fastidious, my perspective not perfect? The quality of my art corresponded to its value because art was no longer a relaxing means of self expression, but the foundation of my ego.

Enough about me. The point is when all your effort yields nothing but disappointment, it’s hard to remember why you bothered in the first place. You trekked for hours and couldn’t even spot a sparrow. You spent fifty hours and countless sleepless nights painting for a dream-themed contest and there wasn’t even an honorable mention to your name. The worst part is you know it didn’t deserve to win anything. All the mistakes plaguing your work are like stones weighing your feathered body down.

It’s almost humiliating. That you’ve poured so much of yourself into what you’re good at—what you’ve defined yourself by— for it to yield so little in return. 


v. It’s okay to quit.

At this point, you’re probably wondering if it is worth pursuing those nebulous dreams of grandeur, of devoting your time to those far-reaching heights when the process has only brought you unhappiness. You’ve learned that 85% of songbirds die in migration, that few survive the voyage from their nest to the unknown land across the ocean, and the more hollow-boned part of you recoils in fear. This is a journey so perilous, only the strongest and luckiest may survive. How have you measured up?

But remember, you are a birdwatcher, not a bird. Unlike the latter, you can choose to give up your epithet at any time. 

If birdwatching is weighing you down instead of bringing you joy, just quit. Trust me, I stopped drawing for similar reasons. No longer would I have to search for substandard muses, stare at my lackluster coloring, bear another second working on a subject I did not care about that I knew would end up looking like garbage anyways. At the time, it felt so freeing, like I had been unshackled. I stopped drawing and never looked back.

After tearing up the foundation of what used to be integral to you, it makes sense that it will take a while to fill the gap where birds once perched. That period of emptiness afterwards is normal. It’s an essential part of growing up. Don’t regret your decision. Giving up your frivolous hobbies is a sign of maturity, and this time can now be used for the things that really matter, whatever they may be. It is not a surrender, but a defiance of the sunk-cost fallacy. 

Migration is a natural process. The birds have left, so there’s no point in dwelling on their feathered forms, no point in sketching out their flighty poses. It’s not like birdwatching was ever going to be more than a hobby. You were never going to fly.


vi. Take down your bird feeder. It’s winter. All the birds have left.



vii. After they’re gone, you’ll see what you’ve always known about birds:

That you were a fool to believe anything could replace your love for birdwatching. That you were always more of a bird than you wanted to be. There’s some part of them in your blood that causes the iron to align with the magnetic field and point to where they are. Every inch of you is a needle converging at the horizon, and you’ve only ever been hurting yourself by trying to seek another path. This yearning cuts far deeper than failure ever did.

You know that I am only using second person to hide from the truth: that I was too afraid to brave the storms and follow the birds I loved into the skies. That my fear left me stranded in the barren winterscape, a tragic figure doomed to stagnancy. I realized far too late that I needed art to feel creatively fulfilled. To feel whole.

You know that this was never about birds in the first place. That this extended metaphor about bird migration was just a flimsy facade to frame quitting as inevitable instead of the result of cowardice. The raw truth was I thought my art wasn’t good enough to make it, so I stopped entirely.

Though, that begs the question… when was being “good enough” the reason why I made art? Before the convoluted bird analogies, before the art contests, before I was old enough to think about flaws, I made art because it made me happy. When did my happiness stop being the priority?


viii. If there’s a part of you that still loves birdwatching, it’s not too late.

I know now that the value of my art is not defined by its technical skill or accolades, but by the joy and satisfaction the process can bring. I don’t have to cross an ocean for my passions to be worth investing in; it’s always worth making time for something I love.

There is still some child-like part in me that wants to fly. I let that child guide me to the oil pastels, to render out a typically black and white bird in spontaneous multicolored hues, unrealistic colors that are undeniably magical. I don’t concern myself with composition or lighting. I don’t care if the guidelines are still visible. This is art that is just for me, and I won’t let my judgment impede my joy for any longer. 

I step back and survey the piece. It’s not perfect, but even so, “artist” easily slides back into my chest like it never left. The funny thing about migration is if you make a home for birds in your heart, they will always come back.


ix. Get your bird feeder ready for spring.

Mulan Pan is a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and enjoys creating art that showcases all the wonders of the natural world, from birds to bugs to black holes. In her free time, she dances passionately but poorly to a wide range of classical and KPOP. She believes you can’t control when inspiration strikes, so always chase after thunderstorms, and have a key and kite on standby.

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