The Poet’s Birds: The Perchers

Scissor-tailed flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus) perched along a Galveston West End bayou

While herons and robins, egrets and larks receive multitudes of mentions in poetry — if not complete poems written in their honor — other birds seem to be ignored. Walter de la Mare wrote about the spotted flycatcher, and Nissim Ezekiel memorialized an unfortunate paradise flycatcher, but the scissor-tailed flycatcher, sometimes known as the Texas bird of paradise, has no well-known poem to call its own.

On the other hand, one typical behavior of our flycatcher — the tendency to perch on power lines or barbed wire fences while scanning for prey — has been written about. In what may be her best-known poem, Emily Dickinson takes the perching bird as her controlling metaphor, and expands on it delightfully.

 

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
                                                        ~ Emily Dickinson

 

Comments always are welcome. For more information about the scissor-tailed flycatcher (which happens to be the state bird of Oklahoma), please click here.

 

Camping Out By the River Called Time

As the heat rises and summer torpor overtakes the land, a small fleet of Sunfish, Optis, and Lasers splashes its way into Galveston Bay. Sailing camps are in session, and even the smallest skippers are eager to begin tacking their way toward competence.

From my vantage point on the dock, I watch and smile. Older campers look and act like any other group of teens. Studies in calculated cool, their swagger might seem a little too self-aware, but there’s no mistaking the meaning of the jostling and sideways glances that mark their passage through the week. They’re as interested in the social seas surrounding them as they are in the waters of the Bay, and they’re learning to navigate both. Continue reading

Purple Cows on Parade

It was, as they say, a ritual. Sunday meant church, a change of clothes and a relaxed dinner.  Sometimes it meant football and other times a bit of yard work but always, if the weather allowed, it meant a drive in the country.

Even without a visit to nearby grandparents, there were excuses to be out and about. There was growing corn that needed checking, bittersweet to be cut from the ditches, fresh gravel to be tested. In spring, we looked for the first robin. In autumn, the last leaves swirled and scudded like vast, colorful clouds while we counted the bundles of snow fence waiting along the shoulders of the road. “They’ve got more fence out than usual,” my dad would say. “Must be expecting a hard winter.”

On the rare afternoons when corn, cattails or bittersweet failed to entertain, we’d read the Burma Shave signs or “collect” out-of-state license plates. There went “Minnesota”, a common enough sight. Here came “Illinois”, a reminder of far-away relatives.  “But look!” I squealed from the back seat. “Montana!”  We might as well have discovered a Bedouin galumphing through Iowa on his camel. Continue reading

Feeling Crabby?

Stitching its way through the fabric of my world, Clear Creek draws together water and sky, grasses and trees into patterns of exquisite beauty. Traversing coastal Texas on an oft-hidden journey toward Clear Lake, its tangled flow provides a miles-long haven for wildlife and birds. Emerging from the lake, it tautens and slows, rising and falling in rhythm with inland-creeping tides until it eases into the open waters of the bay, diluting the ocean’s salty tang with the freshness of earthborn water.

Dredged into a channel at the entrance to Galveston Bay, the creek sometimes seems little more than a prop, a backdrop for tourist snapshots and Chamber of Commerce brochures. Nearly hidden behind a facade of interchangeable restaurants and bars, it no longer tastes of life on the water but feeds a growing appetite for profit. Weekend boat traffic is heavy. The boaters themselves tend to become loud and boisterous, demanding attention as they cruise past envious, land-locked crowds.  Tossing popcorn and bread to equally raucous gulls, weekend visitors miss the silent tern, the motionless heron, the patient grebe, watching and waiting for them all to be gone. Continue reading

The Pleasures of Pelecanus Poeticus

Whether Eleanor Johnson had the pleasure of meeting a pelican during the course of her lifetime, I can’t say. What I know is that, had a pelican plummeted into our 5th grade classroom and perched atop her desk, the first words out of Miss Johnson’s mouth would have been, “Children! Quick! Get out your pencils! Let’s write a poem about our unexpected visitor!”

One of my favorite teachers, Miss Johnson guided us capably enough through lessons in arithmetic and social studies, but her first love was poetry. Obsessed with verse, she clearly hoped to inculcate that same obsession in her little charges.  She would have poured poetry into our heads with a funnel if she’d been able, but lacking direct physical  access to our distracted childhood brains, she did the next best thing – nagging, cajoling, insisting and assigning until we nearly collapsed under the weight of her enthusiasm.

We read biographies of poets, memorized stanzas and recited sonnets in front of the class until until we thought we were going to throw up from the anxiety of it all. When we were assigned our first written theme, an unhappy exercise meant to answer the question What is poetry? groans of disapproval and resistance echoed down the halls. I remember sighing as I examined the new burden she’d imposed.  The essay was to be no less than two hundred words!  My distress was eased only slightly by knowing I already had one answer to Miss Johnson’s question, an answer I suspected she might approve.  Poetry, to my way of thinking, was fun. Continue reading