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: Flight

White-faced ibis (Plegadis chihi) ~ Brazoria County, Texas
(Click image for more detail)

Despite his prolific output and the award of a Nobel Prize in 1971, I’ve only recently come to appreciate the work of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Despite decades of acclaim for his poetry, publications in English represent only a small portion of his oeuvre, apparently due in part to the difficulties of translation;  I simply hadn’t come across them until I found them on the internet.

The details of Neruda’s life are fascinating. A committed Communist and political activist, he returned to Chile in 1953, following some years in exile. Eventually, he began producing less ideologically influenced love poetry, as well as nature poetry celebrating every aspect of the world in which we live.

 In their book Earth Tones: The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, Manuel Duran and Margery Safir note that Neruda began trying to speak to everyday people simply and clearly, on a level that anyone could understand.  In his examination of quite common, everyday things, they say, “Neruda gives us time to examine a particular plant, a stone, a flower, a bird, an aspect of modern life, at leisure. We look at the object, handle it, turn it around, all the sides are examined with love, care, attention. This is, in many ways, Neruda at his best.”

In his poem “Bird,” he offers his attention to their flight in a remarkable and wholly memorable way.

It was passed from one bird to another,
the whole gift of the day.
The day went from flute to flute,
went dressed in vegetation,
in flights which opened a tunnel
through which the wind would pass
to where birds were breaking open
the dense blue air –
and there, night came in.
When I returned from so many journeys,
I stayed suspended and green
between sun and geography –
I saw how wings worked,
how perfumes are transmitted
by feathery telegraph,
and from above I saw the path,
the springs and the roof tiles,
the fishermen at their trades,
the trousers of the foam;
I saw it all from my green sky.
I had no more alphabet
than the swallows in their courses,
the tiny, shining water
of the small bird on fire
which dances out of the pollen.

“Caía de un pájaro a otro
todo lo que el día trae,
iba de flauta en flauta el día,
iba vestido de verdura
con vuelos que abrían un túnel,
y por allí pasaba el viento
por donde las aves abrían
el aire compacto y azul:
por allí entraba la noche.
Cuando volví de tantos viajes
me quedé suspendido y verde
entre el sol y la geografía:
vi còmo trabajan las alas,
còmo se transmite el perfume
por un telégrafo emplumado
y desde arriba vi el camino,
los manantiales, las tejas,
los pescadores a pescar,
los pantalones de la espuma,
todo desde mi cielo verde.
No tenía más alfabeto
que el viaje de las golondrinas,
el agua pura y pequeñita
del pequeño pájero ardiendo
que baila saliendo del polen.”

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more biographical details of Neruda’s life and politics, the Wikipedia page is useful.
For a history of his development as a poet and critique of his work, see the entry at The Poetry Foundation website.

 

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.

 

 

A Certain Slant of Light

Morning on Alazan Bayou ~ Nacogdoches County, Texas

Hopes for a perfect autumn respite — color-filled days, cooler nights, woodsmoke scented air – had washed away before a flood of interminable, days-long rains. While sodden squirrels sheltered and sulked, nightbirds huddled among the dripping oaks, hickories, and pines of the east Texas forest: invisible, unwilling to take flight. Only occasional hints of frog-song rippled across the silence: soft, hesitant trills that sluiced into consciousness as gently as the shush of footsteps along the sandy trails.

Resigned as much to the rain as to the next day’s unavoidable departure, I retired early, falling asleep to the insistent patter of raindrops. Awakened before dawn by unexpected birdsong, I made coffee, then stepped outside to gauge the weather. Improbably, the rain had stopped. Bits of blue shimmered above the treetops, and what darkness remained served only as a foil for the shafts of sunlight piercing the green canopy.

Even the most casual skywatcher has seen the sort of rays that greeted me that morning. The word used to describe them — ‘crepuscular’ — refers to twilight, and crepuscular rays occur primarily during sunrise or sunset twilight. When they appear, streaks of light seem to radiate directly from the sun, shining through breaks in the clouds or past objects arrayed along an irregular horizon, such as mountain tops.

While the shadowed areas between the rays are formed by obstructions,  the light itself is scattered by airborne dust, water droplets, or even air molecules, providing a visible contrast between shadowed and illuminated parts of the sky.

On this particular morning, days of rain had led to significant ground fog, heavy enough to scatter the light into particularly vivid and well-defined rays. As I watched, the initially monochromatic, almost white, rays began taking on color.

Despite the color, the phenomenon clearly wasn’t a rainbow. Seeing the images, sky-savvy friends suggested the possibility of a double effect: crepuscular rays combined with a corona.

Coronae, produced by the diffraction of light, often appear when thin clouds partially obscure the sun or the moon, but tiny droplets of fog or mist can produce the effect under other conditions. Sometimes, the droplets need not be transparent or even spherical; small ice crystals, pollen grains, and large dust particles also can lead to the formation of coronae.

In a corona, the intensely bright central aureole almost always is white, surrounded by a fringe of yellows and reds. Occasionally, one or more successively fainter, more softly-colored rings will surround the aureole, ranging from blue on the inside through greens and yellows to the outermost red.

With the colors more subtly mixed than in a rainbow, blues and greens can be especially hard to see, but in this photo, at least a hint of them seems to exist just below the sun.

While physicists speak of diffraction and droplets, English-language poets have attempted to describe these experiences of sunlight in quite different terms. More than a few, confounded by the inadequacy of language, have invented their own words.

In the poem “Fern Hill,” Dylan Thomas turned to ‘windfall light’ as his image of choice: a phrase that evokes apple-green light tumbling to the ground.

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, who can pile up adjectives with the best of them, turned to the thirteenth-century word shivemeaning a thin piece sliced off from a larger —  to create shivelight for  his poem, “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire…”:

Wherever an elm arches,
shivelights and shadowtackle in long ‘lashes lace, lance, and pair.

C.S. Lewis regularly turned to the sun as a metaphor in his work. When such familiar comparisons as “shafts of delicious sunlight” didn’t seem adequate, he turned to “Godlight,” as in his Letters to Malcolm:

Any patch of sunlight in a wood will show you something about the sun which you could never get from reading books on astronomy. These pure and spontaneous pleasures are patches of Godlight in the woods of our experience.

Despite the best efforts of the poets, none of these words has caught on, perhaps because they seem to describe the light without expressing the aesthetic pleasure that accompanies watching light playing among the trees.

One word that does seem to combine aesthetics with the experience of nature is the nearly untranslatable Japanese word komorebi.

Komorebi (木漏れ日) consists of three kanji and the hiragana particle れ. The kanji 木 means ‘tree’ or ‘trees‘;  漏 refers to ‘leaking through’ or ‘escape’; 日, is ‘light‘ or ‘sun‘. Because no simple English translation exists, phrases such as ‘sunshine filtering through leaves’ or ‘dappled light’ sometimes are used, although ‘the interplay between light and leaves when sunlight shines through trees’ seems especially apt.

Komorebi can refer to an assortment of phenomena: not only crepuscular rays and coronae but also the larger patches of shimmering, movable light produced when sunlight meets fog and rain. The Irish poet Caitríona O’Reilly captures the magic beautifully in her poem, “Komorebi”:

Between the world and the word
are three small shapes,
the signs for ‘‘tree,’’ ‘‘escape,’’ and ‘‘sun.’’
I watch how the light leaks through them,
casting a shade in both directions
in the late year, on the russet path
barred with the shadows of trees.
I love how it exults, like any escapee,
on the lake in slow reflective waves,
in radiant bands ascending the birch trunks
according to some unknown frequency,
and in the cormorant extending his wet wings to it
in a messianic gesture,
as if dazzled to absolute
by the word and the world’s beauty.  

Scientists seek precision; poets seek metaphor. Meanwhile, komorebi drifts through the woodlands and down the streams, always beyond our grasp. Perhaps no English equivalent for the kanji is needed. Sometimes, an encounter with escaped sunlight filtering through leaves is quite enough.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more information about poet Caitríona O’Reilly, please click here.

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.