Sunday, February 08, 2009

`Half-Past Its Prey'

Last week my 8-year-old dissected an owl pellet in science class and picked apart the compacted remains of five mice. He and a partner put on masks and gloves like surgeons, tore open the pellet and removed the contents with tweezers. True to their age, they reassembled the jumbled bones into a rodent Frankenstein’s monster: “We made it look like a mutated freak.” The next day, Dave Lull wrote to say:

“Every winter that we lived there [the first apartment Dave shared with his wife] a snowy owl perched for hours on a power pole at the edge of the woods. From our living room, through a picture window, we could sit comfortably and watch it sitting so still, though moving a little now and then, and sometimes we'd catch sight of it flying away. Beautiful.”

When my oldest son was a boy I took him almost every weekend to a state nature center in upstate New York. Mostly we went there to catch frogs but in the administrative building rangers had built a room-sized cage for Aristotle, a barred owl rescued from some calamity. In aggregate, over seven or eight years, we stared at that owl for a good day or two, waiting for him to move or say something, and neither of us considered that a waste of time. Dave Lull, who says he has been “on an R.S. Thomas kick lately,” sent me “Barn Owl” (from The Way of It, 1977):

Mostly it is a pale
face hovering in the afterdraught
of the spirit, making both ends meet
on a scream. It is the breath
of the churchyard, the forming
of white frost in a believer,
when he would pray; it is soft
feathers camouflaging a machine.

“It repeats itself year
after year in its offspring
the staring pupils it teaches
its music to, that is the voice
of God in the darkness cursing himself
fiercely for his lack of love.

and there the owl happens
like white frost as
cruel and as silent
and the time on its
blank face is not
now so the dead
have nothing to go
by and are fast
or slow but never punctual
as the alarm is
over their bleached bones
of its night-strangled cry.”

Thomas, a Welsh Anglican priest, was a dedicated birdwatcher and probably preferred the company of birds to men. In his poems, birds, especially raptors, are often a stand-in for God but his biographer, Byron Rogers, assures us “mostly it was to do with beauty.” Thomas wrote a second “Barn Owl,” part of a series titled “Bestiary” in No Truce with the Furies (1995):

“The owl call.
It is not Yeats’
owl; it moves
not in circles

“but direct through
the ear to the heart,
refrigerating it.
It belongs not

“to the mind’s order.
It was that which perched
on the boneless arm
of the scarecrow

“that life had set
up to keep death off.
As a poet I am
dumb; as painter

“my brush would shrivel
in its acetylene
eyes. What, as composer
could I do but mimic

“its deciduous notes
flaking from it
with a feather’s softness
but as frigidly as snow?”

The same series of poems, “Bestiary,” begins with “Owl.” Clearly, Thomas felt a temperamental affinity with these fierce nocturnal hunters:

“The owl has a clock’s
face, but there is no time
on it. No raptor ever
is half-past its prey.

“The talons revolve
and the beak strikes the
twelve sharp notes that are
neither midday nor midnight

“on the skull’s anvil
but links of a chain
that thought forges and thought
tries continually to break.”

Has faith ever seemed so fearsome?

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