Confrontation, conflict and contentiousness have been dominating the news cycle of late, but that doesn’t mean cooperation and collaboration have disappeared from the face of the earth.
One of my favorite on-going collaborations has been with photographer Judy Lovell. In the days following the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, she graciously allowed me to use her portrait of Plato the Pelican to help send a message to British Petroleum.
Earlier this week, realizing that none of the blue, green, black-crowned or yellow-crowned herons perched in my photo files would do as an illustration for one of my poems, I got in touch with Judy again. Telling her I wasn’t certain I could scare up another bird to model for me on such short notice, I asked if I might use one of her lovely egrets. Amused, she said I was more than welcome to use the image, although the “egret” I’d chosen actually was a white heron.
My confusion was understandable. Great white herons are a white color-phase of great blue herons, and they bear a remarkable resemblance to egrets. Beyond that, they’re found only in the Florida Keys, so I’ve probably never seen one in the wild.
After their population was decimated by fashionistas demanding their elegant feathers for hats and such, the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge was created to protect the population. Like the brown pelican in Texas, they’ve been brought back from the brink of extinction, and people like Judy have the privilege of observing and recording their lives.
Today, a lovely white heron has flown in from Judy’s site, Janthina Images, to complement my words. Thanks to her, you can enjoy this beauty with great legs and elegant feathers along with the words of my first etherees.
The poems themselves take a form that may be unfamiliar to you. The etheree, a syllabic poem containing ten lines and a total of fifty-five syllables, is named in honor of Etheree Taylor Armstrong, an Arkansas poet who died in 1994. While it may seem strange to attribute a verse form to a particular person, new ways to arrange words are being invented on a regular basis. The Fibonacci, a poetic structure that utilizes a mathematical progression known as the Fibonacci sequence to dictate the number of syllables in each line, has been gaining popularity since Gregory Pinkus invited his blog readers to give “the Fib” a whirl.
As for the etheree, the structure is simplicity itself. The first line contains one syllable, the second line, two, and so on. An etheree can have a title or not, rhyme is permissible but not required, and the poems can be strongly rhythmic.
Perhaps the most familiar form of syllabic poety is the haiku. Other forms include the cinquain, the lanterne, the tanka and the renga - by its very nature, a collaborative poem. Annie Finch, a poet who teaches at the University of Southern Maine, suggests a reason for the growing appeal of counting syllables. “Poets are very, very hungry for constraint right now,” she says. “Poets are often poets because they love to play with words and love constraints that allow the self to step out of the picture a little bit. The form gives you something to dance with so it’s not just you alone on the page.”
Each of the forms has its virtues, of course. I find the etheree particularly delightful for the way the words present themselves on the page. In the first poem that follows, they seem to flow out like ripples moving across a tidal flat, disturbing the silence as little as a heron’s step. In the second, they echo the compact form of a line-sitting bird, patient and motionless in the softly-falling dark.
the tidal flow
glides over wavelets
for the final flight to come
daylight soothing into evening
moonrise lighting decision’s pathway
windsweeping wings tucked and folded in rest
beneath a moon
grown cold and silent.
Shadows weave and tumble.
Branches reach beyond eye’s sight
to scrape along the scudding clouds
and toss to earth their fragile catch,
rivulets of silver, flashes of stars.