Saturday, April 10, 2010

`They're Pretty, So I Like Them'

“Heard a red-wing sing his bobylee in new wise, as if he tossed up a fourpence and it rattled on some counter in the air as it went up.”

Thoreau, of course, a journal entry from April 18, 1854. Who else would recognize the red-wing blackbird by its call, transcribe it as “bobylee” and liken the sound to a coin flipped on a counter? Metaphors don’t spontaneously generate out of vacuums: We say a gifted singer is “golden-throated.”

One summer I spent much of a morning seated on a log by a marsh in upstate New York. My companion was an ichthyologist-turned-ornithologist (as a young professor he had developed allergies to formaldehyde) who was documenting the territory-forming behaviors of red-wing blackbirds. The wetland was dense with cattails, phragmites and other reeds, and he had already sketched in the borders of avian nation-states on a map of the marsh, with each bit of turf defended by a highly vocal male. My professor friend, already old and deferring retirement, reminded me of Uncle Toby and his beloved fortifications.

I already admired the red-winged blackbird for its beauty, brashness and song. (Go here.) My friend’s knowledge, and generosity in sharing it, sparked new understanding of him and the bird. “Red-Winged Blackbirds” by Juliana Gray:

“The epaulettes redeem them; otherwise
I’d hate them, corvids stealing seed I’d bought
for cardinals and sparrows. But there’s that splash
of color: a swatch of yellow on the wing,
a hint of scarlet underneath that makes
their other feathers blacker than a raven’s.
They’re pretty, so I like them. I know it’s just
the males who wear such fancy duds, and no,
I haven’t missed the irony of that.
Here’s the point where I should turn the birds
to metaphors, embodiments of sex
or beauty, nature’s cunning artifice,
a broken heart or other human flaw.
Their shoulders blaze like eyes, like coals, like wounds,
like circumstance as they stretch and fly away.”

The start of the poem put me off. No bird is in need of redemption and who would begrudge seed to one species and indulge another? One of my late father’s late manias was squirrels and their impudent raids on his bird feeder. He welded a box of sheet steel and suspended it from steel cables behind the house. Squirrels sniggered and fed.

What redeems the poem is Gray’s questioning of conventional poeticizing. The bird’s “thisness,” she seems to say, is more than sufficient. There’s no need to strain after metaphors and confuse the result with a poem. Neither is it a poem if the poet merely points at the bird – “Here! See this?” Gray is poet enough to pack four similes into the final two lines.

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