The Poets’ Birds: Migration

Snow geese above a Texas rice field

Empty as the space surrounding it, the hummingbird feeder hangs: bereft of jewel-like flashes and the whir of tiny wings. The wire above the bayou no longer supports the flycatcher; the swallows, too, have flown.

In their absence, other birds return: the osprey to its mast, white pelicans to bayside pilings, teal and coots to the ponds. The cry of early sandhill cranes echoes from the sky; geese swirl over already-harvested fields of milo and rice.

Above autumn’s colored leaves and seeding grassses, the sky is filled with movement: thrilling in its inevitability, and heart-rending in its beauty. Poet Anne Porter has captured something of the risks, the rewards, and the natural rhythm of migration in her poem, “The Birds of Passage.”

 

THE BIRDS OF PASSAGE
You are the one who made us.
You silver all the minnows in all rivers;
You wait in the deep woods
To find the newborn fox cubs
And unseal their eyes.
You shower the sky with stars.
You walk alone
In the wild royal darkness
Of the heavens above the heavens
Where no one else can go.
When the fragile swallows assemble
For their pilgrimages,
When the hummingbirds
Who are scarcely more
Than a glittering breath
Set out for the rain forest
To drink from the scarlet flowers
On the other side of the world
With only now and then
The mast of a passing ship
For a resting place and an inn,
When the Canada geese
Are coming down from the north,
When the storks of Europe
Stretch out their necks toward Egypt
From their nests on the chimney tops,
When shaking their big wings open
And trailing their long legs after them
They rise up heavily
To begin their autumn flight,
You who speak without words
To your creatures who live without words
Are hiding under their feathers
To give them a delicate certainty
On the long dangerous night journey.

 

Comments always are welcome. Click here for more information about poet Anne Porter.

The Poets’ Birds: Red-Winged Blackbird

 

Like the thrilling call of a returning osprey, the song of the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) announces an undeniable turn of season. Hear the song, and it’s not difficult to find the bird: defending territory or seeking a mate by displaying his brilliant red shoulder patches atop any convenient cornstalk, cattail, or branch.

The song, once heard, lingers in memory: evocative, freighted with unexpected meaning. For Welsh poet R.S.Thomas, a song similar in so many ways to the landscape of Wales — a little rough, a bit dark — gave rise to a simple and yet enjoyable poem.

Sometimes compared to the American poet Robert Frost, Thomas is less philosophical and less sanguine about the realities of rural life. Still, there’s little question that he absorbed those realities and transformed them in his own way, much as he imagines the blackbird’s song as a particularly pleasing alchemy.

It seems wrong that out of this bird,
Black, bold, a suggestion of dark
Places about it, there yet should come
Such rich music, as though the notes’
Ore were changed to a rare metal
At one touch of that bright bill.
You have heard it often, alone at your desk
In a green April, your mind drawn
Away from its work by sweet disturbance
Of the mild evening outside your room.
A slow singer, but loading each phrase
With history’s overtones, love, joy
And grief learned by his dark tribe
In other orchards and passed on
Instinctively as they are now,
But fresh always with new tears.
                                          “A Blackbird, Singing”  ~  R.S. Thomas

 

Comments always are welcome.
Click here for more information on poet R.S. Thomas.

The Poets’ Birds: The Mockingbird (and a Donkey)

Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)

 

José Rosas Moreno (1838-1883), a native of Lagos de Moreno, Jalisco, Mexico, served in various governmental positions during his lifetime, but was equally well-regarded as an author. One of his best-known works centered on the life of  Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648 – 1695), a nun sometimes known as the Tenth Muse because of her work as a poet, dramatist, and scholar. 

Sor Juana, as she is known, emerged as an outstanding writer during the Latin American colonial period, although it was not until Octavio Paz’s 1982 biographical and literary study of her writings, Sor Juana: Or, The Traps of Faith that José Rosas Moreno himself became known to a wider audience outside of Mexico. Moreno also devoted himself to poetry, drama, and children’s literature; a series of Aesop-like fables he authored has remained popular in Mexico.

In 1872, American poet William Cullen Bryant was invited to become an honorary member of the Sociedad Mexicana de Geografía y Estadística (Mexican Society of Geography and Statistics).  In order to accept the honor in person, Bryant sailed to Veracruz, then took a stagecoach to Mexico City. There, he met Moreno and translated nine of the Mexican’s Fábulas, or Fables. Writing in The Spanish Background of American Literature, Stanley Williams notes that Bryant may have been “the first major American poet to recognize the achievements of his Mexican brothers” and to allow, for the first time, “a poet of Mexico [receiving] in the United States the most substantial of recognitions: namely, adequate translation into the English language.”

After returning to the United States, Bryant wrote the following letter dated October 2, 1876, to one Miss Bates from his residence on Long Island, New York:

Dear Miss Bates.
It seems to me almost certain that I answered your inquiry concerning the author of the little poem which I translated from the Spanish. His name is Rosas — José Rosas — a Mexican, whose little volume entitled “Fabulas” is adopted as a leading book in the schools of the Mexican capital. From the preface by his friend Ignacio Altamirano, a literary gentleman of note — and of the pure aboriginal race — I learn that he was known as a poet before the “Fabulas” were published in 1872.

The Libro de Fábulas consists of five volumes. Each contains twenty original verse fables (although only nineteen are included in Book IV), plus an appendix of thirteen verse fables. Some, like a well-known fable involving a camel, have been included in public memorials. While I haven’t been able to locate all fables translated by Bryant, I was charmed by the humor in the mockingbird’s poem, and appreciated the introduction to a new Mexican poet.

A mock-bird in a village
Had somehow gained the skill
To imitate the voices
Of animals at will.
And singing in his prison
Once, at the closing of the day,
He gave, with great precision,
The donkey’s heavy bray.
Well pleased, the mock-bird’s master
Sent to the neighbors ’round,
And bade them come together
To hear that curious sound.
They came, and all were talking
In praise of what they heard,
And one delighted lady
Would fain have bought the bird.
The donkey listened sadly,
And said: “Confess I must
That these are shallow people,
And terribly unjust.
“I’m bigger than that mock-bird,
And better bray than he,
Yet not a soul has uttered
A word in praise of me.”
                              The Mockingbird and the Donkey  ~  José Rosas Moreno 
 

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds: Dabblers

Whether Kenneth Grahame meant The Wind in the Willows to be for children or adults has been debated, but the timeless tale of animal friends and their adventures along the Thames, in the Wild Wood, or on the Open Road has enchanted readers since the book’s publication in 1908.

I missed meeting the main characters — Ratty, Mole, Badger, and Mr. Toad of Toad Hall — as a child, but once I began sailing, I discovered one quotation from the book appearing on nearly every boat: embroidered on salon pillows, hanging on bulkheads, incised over companionways, or silk-screened onto tee-shirts. Taken from the first chapter of the book, the saying’s appeal to sailors seemed universal:

There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.

Eventually I read on, and found equally memorable passages to enjoy. After being introduced to the entertaining dabbling ducks at various refuge ponds — the mallards, northern shovelers, teals, and pintails that tip tail as they forage for food — the sight of their antics evoked one of the book’s most charming exchanges, between Ratty and Mole.

“Ratty,” said the Mole suddenly, one bright summer morning, “if you please, I want to ask you a favour.”
The Rat was sitting on the river bank, singing a little song. He had just composed it himself, so he was very taken up with it, and would not pay proper attention to Mole or anything else.
Since early morning he had been swimming in the river, in company with his friends the ducks. And when the ducks stood on their heads suddenly, as ducks will, he would dive down and tickle their necks, just under where their chins would be if ducks had chins, till they were forced to come to the surface again in a hurry, spluttering and angry and shaking their feathers at him, for it is impossible to say quite all you feel when your head is under water.
At last they implored him to go away and attend to his own affairs and leave them to mind theirs. So the Rat went away, and sat on the river bank in the sun, and made up a song about them, which he called “The Ducks’ Ditty”:
All along the backwater,
Through the rushes tall,
Ducks are a-dabbling,
Up tails all!
Ducks’ tails, drakes’ tails,
Yellow feet a-quiver,
Yellow bills all out of sight
Busy in the river!
Slushy green undergrowth
Where the roaches swim–
Here we keep our larder,
Cool and full and dim.
Everyone for what he likes!
We like to be
Heads down, tails up,
Dabbling free!
High in the blue above
Swifts whirl and call–
We are down a-dabbling
Up tails all!
“I don’t know that I think so very much of that little song, Rat,'” observed the Mole cautiously. He was no poet himself and didn’t care who knew it, and he had a candid nature.
“Nor don’t the ducks neither,'” replied the Rat cheerfully. “They say, ‘Why can’t fellows be allowed to do what they like when they like and as they like, instead of other fellows sitting on banks and watching them all the time and making remarks and poetry and things about them? What nonsense it all is!’ That’s what the ducks say.”

However ambivalent the ducks may be about Ratty’s little song, for those of us who enjoy dabbling in poetry — or anything else — the ducks’ ditty is both amusing and instructive: a worthy combination. I’m glad Grahame recorded it.

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

 

The Poets’ Birds: Wood Storks

 

Despite the wide variety of birds I’ve featured in this series, I never thought to include the wood storks (Mycteria americana). Having seen them only once, in August of 2016, I always assumed their visit to the Brazoria Refuge was an aberration. The Cornell birding site supported that conclusion, noting that the species occurs in only a few areas of the United States: particularly in wetlands or preserves along the Florida, South Carolina, and Georgia coastlines.

On the other hand, storks believed to originate in breeding colonies in Mexico and Central America have been reported in the lower Mississippi River Valley, Louisiana, and Texas during the late summer and fall. That could help to explain my second sighting of the birds in early July of this year — in the same area of the Brazoria preserve where I first encountered them.

I assumed that the pair shown above, and a half-dozen others wading among the grasses, soon would be gone, but by July 21 an impressive group of a hundred or more — both juveniles and adults — were roaming the flats, perhaps attracted by the falling water levels in the freshwater ponds and the consequent heavier than usual concentrations of fish.

The bird’s fishing technique is unusual, and fun to watch. Dipping its open bill into the water, the stork waits for a passing fish. Once it senses a fish, the stork snaps its bill shut, and dinner is served. According to National Geographic, the fish don’t have much of a chance; wood storks are capable of snapping their bills shut in as little as 25 milliseconds.

Despite the group as a whole being almost beyond the range of my camera, a few individuals were close enough for me to capture some of the oddly appealing details of their appearance. On both occasions the storks were accompanied by flocks of roseate spoonbills, but those photos can wait for another day. Here, it’s the wood storks’ time to shine, along with William Logan’s memorable poem.

 

Behind the movie theater’s neon beau monde
cooled the dank waters of a retention pond,
cyclone-fenced, palm-guarded, overgrown.
You walked there when you wanted to be alone.
For weeks nothing stirred the blackened reeds,
which were enough, those days you felt in need.
Then, one evening through the gathered gloom,
as if something uncanny had entered a room,
across algae green as an Alpine meadow,
eight white ghosts floated faintly through the shadows,
pausing, worrying, then slowly moving on,
the waters like a chessboard scattered with white pawns.
When bankers review their fat portfolios,
they draw such dark beaks open and closed,
great shears to cut some invisible thread.
The pale birds stalked like something newly dead.
One lifted a black-edged wing, in search of food,
and somehow that broke your somber mood.
Yet on they marched, like Dante’s souls through Hell,
awaiting the Last Judgment’s redeeming bell,
working their way in silence, fallen aristocrats.
You said they looked like ladies’ hats,
white as the color of love, if love has color —
bright white, you meant, only a little duller.
                                                            “On the Wood Storks” ~ William Logan

 

 

Comments are welcome. For more information on poet William Logan, please click here.