It was on the ground between a bicycle rack and a brick wall. I mistook it for a piece of bark among the dried-up leaves of a fallen live oak branch. I looked again and understood it was a sparrow lying on its side. I nudged him with a stick and knew he was dead. In a residential neighborhood, a cat surely would have carried him off but I’ve never seen a cat on campus.
His feathers were pristine. This was a house sparrow, the humble distillation of birdness turned invisible by familiarity. Their springy hop when feeding is distinctive, a pleasure to watch, inducing what Chesterton called “the ecstasy of the ordinary.” Seeing a dead bird brings a fleeting sense of guilt and uncertainty. It seems indecent to let it rot or for a groundskeeper to lift it with his shovel. I kept walking.
Robert Wells is an English poet born in 1947. He was a friend to Edgar Bowers, and I’ve been reading his Collected Poems and Translations (Carcanet, 2009). There I found “Common Sparrow”:
“A poisoned seed or knock from a windscreen: loosely
The slight body lies in the handkerchief.
“I set you among oakleaves, turn you with a twig,
Ruffle your feathers and draw out the wing.
“Bird of Venus, show me how you are made,
the markings that you were quick to hide. Your tail
And folded sides dark feathers edged with brown,
Your breast the colour of an uncertain sky,
“The yellow patch at the base of your squat beak,
Your freckled top and cheeks of puffed grey down,
As if guilty of some cherished crime, I dwell
On these rarities and make my acknowledgement.”
The sparrow is “common” yet possesses “rarities.” Wells might have written “respect,” but that’s too emphatic and self-regarding. With “acknowledgement,” a seemingly unpoetic word, he chooses well. In a Nov. 22, 1817, letter to Benjamin Bailey, Keats writes:
“I scarcely remember counting upon happiness — I look not for it if it be not in the present hour — nothing startles me beyond the moment. The setting sun will always set me to rights, or if a sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.”