Monday, January 11, 2010

`If Trills Could Kill'

Much breath has been expended on the meaning and purpose of bird song. Biologists theorize the size and variety of a male bird’s repertoire alerts females to his fitness as a mate – the bigger the song book, etc. Others argue that birds, like some humans, possess an aesthetic sense and just enjoy jamming. Keats’ bird is “pouring forth thy soul abroad / In such an ecstasy!” My sons entered the ornithological fray while listening to crows in our neighborhood at twilight:

“Why do they make so much noise, Dad?”

“They’re social creatures. They enjoy yakking with their friends, discussing the events of the day.”

The boys started translating the din and added subtitles:

“Hey, that’s my pizza. Hands off.”

“Did you see Avatar?”

“Don’t poop on me.”

“Eat hot lead, sucker!”

There’s precedent for this approach to bird studies. In About the Size of It (2007), Tom Disch includes “Birdsong Interpreted”:

“Scuse me? Scuse M? This is my territory.
Didja hear what I said? I said, Go away!
No Trespassing! Vamoose! Amscray!
Everything was hunky-dory
Till you disturbed the eco-balance.
I homesteaded here and you’re Jack Palance
Terrorizing godly folk.
Leave! Or I will have a stroke.
I will! I kid you not. I’ll sing
My heart out, pop a valve, expire:
This nest will be my funeral pyre.
I’m warning you: if songs could sting,
If trills could kill, my dear sweet thing,
You wouldn’t linger longer here.
Jug, jug, pu-whee! – now, disappear!”

Disch’s bird, speaking avian demotic in rhyming couplets, starts out sounding like Travis Bickle. The voice is young, male, macho and American, until the final line when Disch quotes an Elizabethan poet quoting a bird: “Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo!” That’s from Thomas Nashe’s “Spring, the Sweet Spring” (from Summer’s Last Will and Testament, 1600).

[Last week, after I wrote successive posts recalling the deaths of Guy Davenport, John Berryman and Elvis Presley, my brother referred to it as “Dead Guy Week.” Add Disch, a wonderful poet who died a suicide on July 4, 2008, to the roll. Go to Schrodinger’s Cake for a site rich in links to Disch’s poetry, fiction, criticism and online journal.]

1 comment:

Terry Teachout said...

I don't know whether we've discussed this or not, but do you know Constant Lambert's "Summer's Last Will and Testament"? Or the setting of "Spring, the Sweet Spring" in Britten's Spring Symphony?