The Poets’ Birds: Robins

Proust had his madeleines. I have my robins.

The murmuring of robins evokes for me a quieter, more gracious world: childhood summers filled with the soft, shallow breathing of curtains at the window; faint scents of spirea and lilac; quiet, melodic wisps of song as parents encourage their nestlings toward sleep.

Baby robins wait for worms in Mena, Arkansas

Robins migrating through Texas will call to one another from the treetops, or create a tell-tale rustling of leaves as they search out insects and fruit in wooded areas, but coastal dwellers rarely hear this thrush’s song.

Last week, after sighting a first robin in Muskogee, Oklahoma, I luxuriated in their calls and songs as I traveled through Missouri and Arkansas. Occasionally, amused but sympathetic, I moved away so that parents could feed their babies.

The babies’ parent with a worm, nicely turned

The nature of robins — their cheerfulness, their industry, their almost self-effacing demeanor — helps to make them delightful icons of midwestern life. The trill of the corn-clinging blackbird might be more obvious; the rush of air past a nighthawk’s wings more dramatic; but the dependable robins are the ones whose song begins and ends the day.

Mary Oliver, born in Maple Heights, Ohio and a resident of Camden, Maine as a teenager, certainly heard the robin’s song throughout her formative years. But she more than heard it; she experienced, internalized, and reshaped the song, returning it to us here in soft, solemn, and perfect words that honor the well-loved bird.

 

It was spring
and I finally heard him
among the first leaves––
then I saw him clutching the limb
in an island of shade
with his red-brown feathers
all trim and neat for the new year.
First, I stood still
and thought of nothing.
Then I began to listen.
Then I was filled with gladness––
and that’s when it happened,
when I seemed to float,
to be, myself, a wing or a tree––
and I began to understand
what the bird was saying,
and the sands in the glass
stopped
for a pure white moment
while gravity sprinkled upward
like rain, rising,
and in fact
it became difficult to tell just what it was that was singing––
it was the thrush for sure, but it seemed
not a single thrush, but himself, and all his brothers,
and also the trees around them,
as well as the gliding, long-tailed clouds
in the perfect blue sky–––all of them
were singing.
And, of course, so it seemed,
so was I.
Such soft and solemn and perfect music doesn’t last
For more than a few moments.
It’s one of those magical places wise people
like to talk about.
One of the things they say about it, that is true,
is that, once you’ve been there,
you’re there forever.
Listen, everyone has a chance.
Is it spring, is it morning?
Are there trees near you,
and does your own soul need comforting?
Quick, then––open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song
may already be drifting away.
                           “Such Singing in the Wild Branches” ~ Mary Oliver

Comments always are welcome.

 

The Coastal Dwellers’ Lament

A preview of things to come 

Sumer is icumen in, and faint eddies of ambivalence have begun to swirl along the Texas coast.

We love our summers, but despite the season’s delights, we know we’ll soon enough become limp and bedraggled as this poor prickly poppy.

Since we can’t do a thing to change the coming heat and humidity, it’s best to find some ways to cope. Humor always helps, so what could be better than a little tongue-in-cheek tribute to our annual tribulation?

 

Now
comes the
summer of
our discontent;
stalking and sliding
down slick, flattened grasses;
silently digging through wind
rippled dunes; sighing and dripping
sharp, salt-laden dross onto springtime —
that delicate season, long hoped-for, now doomed.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more information on the Etheree, a syllabic poem that, in its basic form, contains ten lines and a total of fifty-five syllables, please click here.

The Poets’ Birds: Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird  (Mimus polyglottos) on Galveston Island

My mother noticed the sound first, drawing my attention to it with a question. “How do you suppose a duck got up on the roof?”

Surprised, I looked around. “Duck? Where do you see a duck?”  “I don’t see a duck,” she said. “I hear a duck.” Listening, I realized she was right. The duck’s quacking, loud and insistent, seemed to be coming from above — if not from the roof, then from one of the overhanging trees.

Of course ducks fly, but we lived among mallards, and I’d never seen one perch higher than ground-level. Intrigued, I followed the sound. Caught up in a racket of its own making, the bird never moved, making it easy to spot. “Look at this,” I said. “Someone’s been hanging out around the water.”

It was a mockingbird on a corner of the roof, engaged in a pitch-perfect imitation of our local mallards. Rather than changing its song from time to time, as mockingbirds do, it simply quacked on, perhaps so delighted with its new ability it couldn’t bring itself to stop.

 
Eventually our amusement faded, but in the coming weeks and months I found myself listening to mockingbirds more closely, picking out snippets of other birds’ calls and songs from their repertoire.

Then, three years ago, a particularly enthusiastic singer moved into my neighborhood. He sang at dawn, and he sang at sunset; he sang at noon and, rather remarkably, he sang at midnight. I thought his night-singing an anomaly until I read this, in the Audubon Field Guide:


 This bird’s famous song, with its varied repetitions and artful imitations, is heard all day during nesting season (and often all night as well).

There’s no way to prove that the same bird has been singing outside my window for three years, but it can’t be denied that he always chooses the same palm tree, and no matter how much singing he’s done, he always begins again between 3 and 4 a.m.

Because of the way the buildings are placed, they seem to amplify his sound, increasing the volume to such a degree that even closed windows are no defense.

After recently being sung awake three nights in a row with no practical way to silence the bird — or any real desire to do so — I decided to add the mockingbird to my series of poets’ birds. This time, I wrote the poem, smiling all the while.

Pleased
to trill
in darkness,
mocking heron
and mallard alike,
the impudent singer
stretches and preens for a still
unseen mate: improvised warbles,
chirrups, and peeps enticing the world
to his sweet-feathered, palm-hidden presence.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more information on the Etheree, a syllabic poem that, in its basic form, contains ten lines and a total of fifty-five syllables, please click here.

A Small Creature, But A Great Grief

To say the end was unexpected hardly would be true. For months there had been signs of age taking its toll; in past weeks there had been increasing restlessness; discontented murmurings; howls in the night.

Still, that it would come so suddenly took me by surprise. After our usual morning routine — I always drank my first cup of coffee while brushing her into a state of purring contentment — I arrived home in early afternoon to find Dixie Rose staggering and in pain, suffering from  partial paralysis.

Within half an hour we were in her veterinarian’s examining room. Still unable to walk, totally non-responsive to the probings of the vet, and showing no signs of her usual combativeness, she seemed exhausted. Possible causes were outlined, but certainty would require testing, or more invasive procedures. In the meantime, she would continue to suffer.

The decision, of course, was mine; it was more than a little comfort that the veterinarian agreed with the wisdom of the decision. After eighteen years of healthy and happy companionship, it was time to let her go.

How the loss of such a small creature can leave such a large hole in a home — a heart — is a mystery, but as so often happens, Mary Oliver offers words to help fill that gap, from her time “In Blackwater Woods.”

 

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars
of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,
the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Comments always are welcome.

Living Outside The Lines

Color Us Content ~ c. 1950
Apricot. Bittersweet. Burnt Sienna. Cornflower. Maize. Mahogany. Melon.

Those of us who grew up between 1949 and 1957 may remember those colors with special affection. Clear and vibrant as the bits of nature whose names they bear, they are classic Crayola colors: part of the box of forty-eight crayons that became one of my childhood’s greatest treasures.

Before 1958, the year the box containing sixty-four Crayolas was introduced, the forty-eight piece box was the big box: the box you received as a Christmas gift, or for a birthday, or because you’d contracted something like measles that would keep you in bed for a while. Continue reading

The Poets’ Birds: Vultures

Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

There’s nothing unusual about seeing vultures in Texas, but a pair of turkey vultures taking the sun on a gently disintegrating windmill seemed worth the stop.

By the time I’d stepped out of the car, one of the birds already was giving me the side-eye. The reason for his attention was obvious; if I were going to expire on the side of the road, he didn’t want to miss an easy meal.

His cautious but coolly calculating expression amused me immensely. There on the spot, I composed a bit of verse for him:

The vulture high atop his tree
will look and look  – what does he see?
Of course he’d like to eat for free;
I hope he doesn’t relish me!

Occasionally a website or tabloid will try to pull in readers with an attack-vulture story, but vultures aren’t designed to attack human beings. Several species, including the turkey vulture, will eat small, live prey from time to time, but they’ve evolved to feed primarily on carrion, and help to keep the environment clean by ridding it of dead animals. 

Still, their habits elicit a certain revulsion, and occasionally an almost superstitious reaction. “Don’t stop walking,” an old Texas rancher once said to me. “You don’t want to tempt them.”

 

In a poem he titled “Vulture,” Robinson Jeffers (1887–1962) imagines what it would be like to stop walking, and tempt such a bird.

Jeffers promoted a philosophy he called “inhumanism” — a view of things in which nature “not only serves as a backdrop for verse,  but animals and natural objects frequently are compared to man, with man shown to be the inferior.” It’s a perspective that influenced other California poets, such as Gary Snyder, and although the “merging with nature” that Jeffers imagines here is less sentimental and far more graphic than that portrayed in many poems, it certainly is memorable. I suspect my vultures would like it.

 

I had walked since dawn and lay down to rest on a bare hillside
Above the ocean. I saw through half-shut eyelids a vulture wheeling
high up in heaven,
And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit
narrowing.
I understood then
That I was under inspection. I lay death-still and heard the flight-
feathers
Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer.
I could see the naked red head between the great wings
Bear downward, staring. I said, ‘My dear bird, we are wasting time
here.
These old bones will still work; they are not for you.’ But how
beautiful
he looked, gliding down
On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in the
sea-light
over the precipice. I tell you solemnly
That I was sorry to have disappointed him. To be eaten by that beak
and
become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes–
What a sublime end of one’s body, what an enskyment; what a life
after death.

 

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

On Taking Goethe’s Advice

Woman Reading by Candlelight ~ Peter Ilsted, 1908

Burned onto flimsy wooden signs in souvenir shops, quoted to death on Facebook, memed on Instagram, and included in semi-inspirational books of every sort, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s words continue to resonate nearly two hundred years after his death:

One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, and see a fine picture.

Oddly, Goethe himself never spoke or wrote those words as actual advice. The line belongs to one of Goethe’s characters: a theater manager named Serlo  who appears in the novelWilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.  It was Serlo who said:

Men are so inclined to content themselves with what is commonest; the spirit and the senses so easily grow dead to the impressions of the beautiful and perfect; that every one should study, by all methods, to nourish in his mind the faculty of feeling these things.
For no man can bear to be entirely deprived of such enjoyments: it is only because they are not accustomed to the taste of what is excellent that the generality of people take delight in silly and insipid things, provided they be new.
‘For this reason,’ he would add, ‘one ought every day at least to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.’ [Book V, Chapter 1]

Setting aside for a moment the possibility of speaking a few reasonable words — a phrase generally omitted from the quotation — the relevance of Serlo’s assertion is undeniable. In a world awash in silly and insipid things, it becomes ever easier for our spirits to become deadened to the beauty and creativity surrounding us: both that contained in past tradition and that which arises from our present lives.
Continue reading