Sunday, November 3, 2013
Poetry for Bird Lovers: Bright Wings
I've posted a few times about birds and poetry, and birds as symbols, sometimes as winged figures of inspiration, other times as harbingers as death. So what could be more appropriate than an anthology of poems about birds? Truly, for birders who enjoy poetry, or poetry enthusiasts who like birds, I cannot recommend Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems about Birds by Billy Collins (editor) and David Sibley (illustrator) highly enough.
As often as I've researched birds as symbols--and the history of myth, folklore and superstition has plenty of examples--at the most basic level, there is no reason to think of birds as metaphors or portents of anything. They are just themselves, winged beings who happen to catch the attention of humans, now and then, whether poets or not.
Several of these poems seem to simply want to capture that moment, of the human (poet) noticing the bird, without unnecessary fanfare of symbolic weight. How would you describe a bird you've seen, if you had a poet's way with words? And many of the selections here appear to do just that, no more, no less: depict the bird, just as the writer saw it. Among my favorites: "Cliff Swallows" by Annie Finch; "Cedar Waxwings" by Jonathan Aaron; "Loons Mating" by David Wagoner; and "Sandpiper" by Elizabeth Bishop.
In Lisa Williams' "The Kingfisher," the startled bird departs, "trailing calls like the bead of a rosary: a string of clicks in the air." In Jane Hirshfield's "Hope and Love," the solitary heron in her barn "slept/with his long neck/folded, like a letter/put away." It is details like these that make us look at familiar birds again, in a new way. Have we really been seeing them, all of these years? For isn't the unexpected description apt, although we wouldn't have phrased it quite that way, on our own?
Or what about "The Birds" by William Carlos Williams:
The world begins again!
Not wholly insufflated
the blackbirds in the rain
upon the dead topbranches
of the living tree,
stuck fast to the low clouds,
notate the dawn.
Their shrill cries sound
and drop among the bending roses
and the dripping grass.
Many of us cannot resist adding our own human spin to our observations, and in some of these poems, the result is unexpected and surprising. For example, I didn't expect to like "Seagulls," by John Updike, since I really dislike his fiction, but the poem gives a fresh and surprising look at gulls: "Are they intelligent?/We imagine so, because they are ugly./The sardonic one-eyed profile, slightly cross,/the narrow, ectomorphic head, badly combed,/the wide and nervous and well-muscled rump/all suggest deskwork...." I confess I've never thought of gulls that way....
Or what about crows, in Lucia Perillo's "The Crows Start Demanding Royalties," where she imagines them as human thugs, hoping that "new bones would come popping out" of their wings "with a boxing glove on the end of each." Or maybe it's just that "men like to see themselves as crows."
One of my favorite poems in this selection is "Swifts" by Anne Stevenson, a joyous play of language about swifts returning in April, those "bolts in the world's need: swift swifts..." This is a poem to be read aloud, for the lilting cadences that catch the movement of those winged cigars: "bolt nocks bow to carry one sky-scyther/Two hundred miles an hour across fullblown windfields." Even if you think you hate poetry, I dare you to read "Swifts" aloud a few times, and then tell me you weren't the least bit captivated by the language.
Left to their own devices, birds sing beautifully, and have busy lives, but they don't write poems. This might be one of those important distinctions of being human. So it's natural that many of these poems don't simply try to convey the birdiness of the subject, but something of the intersection between bird and human observer.
For example, Robert Cording's "Peregrine falcon, New York City" shows an advertising writer momentarily transfixed by the sight of a falcon--"the air articulate with a kind of/wonder and terror..." and although "the thin edge of the falcon's wings/Had opened the slightest fissure in him," he soon returns to his trade, thinking that the bird's power would be "a fit emblem for something."
In a less cynical mood, Sylvia Plath's "Pheasant" shows the poet realizing that "I trespass stupidly" in the bird's world. They are rare, so she doesn't want them killed, but "A dozen would be worth having/A hundred, on that hill--green and red,/Crossing and recrossing: a fine thing!"
There's just something about the sight of a bird, or the presence of birds in general, that make us in awe of the mystery, of the world just beyond us. Jane Hirsfield stands out again, in "The Woodpecker Keeps Returning," in which she ponders why the bird is hammering at the side of her house, and where is his mate? "I ask this, who am myself the ruined siding/the handsome red-capped bird, the missing mate."
In "Bird Watching," by John Ciardi, an unidentified bird provides an insight: "...A bird is a bird as long as it is/there. Then it is a miracle our crumbs and/sunflower seeds caught and let go." In Stanley Plumly's "Cardinals in a Shower at Union Square," the unexpected sight of the birds causes dancing and clapping, and "For a moment the ringing air is clear, then/for a moment nothing happens, nothing moves/except the cardinals, in and out of trees,/And in that moment ends."
Sometimes no one notices that intersection of bird and human, as in "Sparrow Trapped in the Airport" by Averill Curdy, in which the bird, "lentil brown, uncounted, overlooked" scrounges for food beneath the baggage loop, "looking more like a fumbled punchline/than a stowaway whose revelation/recalls how lightly we once traveled." But someone was looking, and here is the documentation....
Some of the poems describe a sort of transformation at this moment of bird/avian connection. In "The Darkling Thrush," Thomas Hardy details a sterile and depressing landscape, and finding renewed life in a thrush's unexpected song: "His happy good-night air/Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew/And I was unaware." Or in Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese," in which their call "harsh and exciting/over and over announcing your place/in the family of things."
Sometimes, the importance of looking is not so transparent. In "Grackles," Lisa Williams describes seeing her yard filled with grackles, and yet they had not gathered up "the darkness of my winter thought that day/in mid-September, bundled it, black-ribboned,/into sleek coats and lifted it from me." On the contrary, her life goes on just the same. Or in "Red-Winged Blackbirds," Juliana Gray acknowledges that "here's the point where I should turn the birds/to metaphors...", and yet she is left only with the image of them: "Their shoulders blaze like eyes, like coals, like wounds/like circumstance as they stretch and fly away." Really, who, after seeing a flock of red-winged blackbirds, can conjure up an appropriate metaphor? Not me.
The birds of Bright Wings do not escape their reputation of harbingers of death, for several of the poems touch on this association. "To a Farmer Who Hung Five Hawks on His Barbed Wire" by David Wagoner is, perhaps, my favorite of this collection. In it, the speaker addresses a man known for killing hawks, and launches a sort of hawk's-eye curse at him: "Tonight, I aim this dream straight at your skull/While you nestle it against soft feathers", not only that he will experience the acute death of his victims, "...Your breastbone shatters/Suddenly, and you fall flapping...", but also his own slow death over the years, once he wakes: "Little by little, lightly and softly/More quietly than the breath of a deer mouse." Honestly, this poem, read in its entirety, is so powerful it makes my blood run cold.
Maybe I'm morbid, for the poems of death are some of my favorites. Perhaps it is just such a powerful theme. In "Keeping Track," Bob Hicok's counting of birds in a tree--"One grackle two grackles in the maple three four/two grackles one grackle in the maple none grackles," leads him to surmise that a perching crow is "making the tree resemble an excuse for crow/as I am an excuse for death to take its time."
On a more somber note, "Cedar Waxwing on Scarlet Firethorn" by Stanley Plumly shows a potential suicide's desire "To start again with something beautiful/ and natural, the waxing first on one/foot, then the other, holding the berry..." The speaker believes that after death "each bird/could be anyone in the afterlife/alive, on wing. Like this one, which lets its/thin lisp of a song go out into the wood-/land understory, into its voice, gone." This is one of the most powerful poems in the collection, beautiful despite the subject matter. I could read it again and again.
In "The Ravens of Denali," Dorianne Laux imagines them as being the ultimate death-bringers, the "pole star of the apocalypse" and "harbingers of unluck/and the cold bleak lack to come." Well, if it's going to come anyway, it might as well be with the world's "tattered ends/gripped in [their] fur-crusted beaks..."
More often, though, it is the birds who are at risk, at least in real life, and some of these poems reflect that. Eamon Grennan's "On a 3 1/2 oz Lesser Yellowlegs, Departed Boston August 28, Shot Martinique September 8" is short and poignant: "But ah, the shot: you clot/in a cloud of feathers, drop/Dead in a nest of text-books." Mark Jarman's "A Pair of Tanagers" is even sadder, describing a male and female, their long journey ended with a collision against his wall. And one of the poems I truly hated, though not for the poet's skill, as it was quite vivid, was Linda Gregerson's "Make-falcon," in which the captive is tamed and its eyes sewed shut to make it amenable, for "They greatly dislike the human face."
The ultimate truth, of course, can only be guessed at, as in "Humming-Bird" by D.H. Lawrence, where he imagines that "in some otherworld/Primeval-dumb, far back/In that most awful stillness, that only gasped and hummed,/Hummingbird-birds raced down the avenues." This was a monstrous creature..."We look at him through the wrong end of the long telescope of Time,/Luckily for us."
And luckily for us, we have Bright Wings to bring these poems together. (BTW, I paid for this book, so I have no reason to exaggerate.) If you enjoy birds and poetry, this one is worth checking out.