In some people, appearance and deportment conspire to suggest an animal, a zoological reflection of their truer selves. Jimmy Cagney is a pug and Samuel Beckett a hawk. Likewise, some animals suggest human types, a linkage known at least since Aesop. Eric Ormsby toys with avian allegory in “Some Birds”:
“Observe that heron’s hyperbolic stride,
the sinister way in which it seems to glide
on underwater rollerblades until
it halts and leans to peep across the sill
of the cattails and hypodermics its kill –
speared bullfrog or a bream. The great blue
is terrible and righteous when it pierces,
a marshy critic with a malice-javelin
deflating the fat white bellies of its catch.
I loath, yet am infatuated with, that heron.
“The gallinules will shame me for my ponderous
approach to life. They have a buoyant levity
as they paddle plumply on the rank canal.
I hope to apply against my debacles
their aqueous placidity. Their horned feet
trundle the muddy depths to keep afloat.
“Anhinga rookeries with their
brash, almost crackly chatter
set my arm-hairs on edge and give me
the gags,– that putrescent glitter
of fish-skin against gray twig,
under the leisurely parade of
self-important cumulus, leaves a
tufted taste in the mouth.”
All three are indigenous to Ormsby’s native Florida and the American Southeast, and all, even the heron, are faintly exotic birds but familiar human types. The giveaway with the great blue heron is “a marshy critic with a malice-javelin.” Whether book reviewer or office colleague, we know him – biting in a machine-like way, predatory, mean for the sake of meanness. “Hypodermics” as a verb is nice, suggesting euthanasia, viciousness masquerading as mercy. All of us know the sort, “terrible and righteous when it pierces.” The final line acknowledges our fascination (a form of envy?) with the type.
Ormsby gives gallinules a more admiring treatment. They are as we wish to be -- “buoyant levity” and “aqueous placidity.” They “trundle the muddy depths to keep afloat,” not avoiding the troublesome murk we prefer to ignore. Despite their seeming equanimity, ornithologists tell us the purple gallinule “usually retreats quickly under cover if disturbed,” and their voice is characterized as “a gruff `kruk-kruk-kruk-kruk.’”
For Ormsby, the anhinga is a more ambiguous figure, heron-like but less nasty, its doubleness signaled by its common names -- water-turkey and snake-bird. Audubon describes it as “indefinitely gregarious,” yet the poet is almost sickened by its appearance: “putrescent glitter.” Audubon admires the anhinga’s cunning and grace, which go unmentioned by Ormsby:
“[It] is the very first of all fresh-water divers. With the quickness of thought it disappears beneath the surface, and that so as scarcely to leave a ripple on the spot; and when your anxious eyes seek around for the bird, you are astonished to find it many hundred yards distant…”
With Ormsby I share a north/south binocular vision. The north is plain and even harsh; the south, flamboyant and sometimes corrupt. A native of Florida, the poet lived for decades in Canada, now in England. I’m Ohio-born, a long-time resident of upstate New York, living in the sub-tropics of Houston. Ormsby anatomizes three water-dwelling birds of the South, but may reveal more in another bird poem, a northern one, “To a Bird in Winter” (Time’s Covenant, 2006 ):
Your small claws blue
Beneath the raggedy
“Habit of subzero
Song. And you will
Tutor me, flit-hero,
“Prophet-minor of cold-
Crunched twigs and nettle-
Skeletons; your bold
Coal-chip pupil settles
“On me, where I follow
You, farther into hiddenness,
Aswarm in the swallow
Villas now left summerless.
“Remembrance of the sun
Glitters your retices;
Icy octaves bangle your dun
Beak that curettes crevices.
“Cauterized, chipper, astute,
You concentrate the frigid waste
In fierce fluff, my modest flute
That whistles to the holocaust.”
For Ormsby we coin a new job description: ornithological/Theophrastian maker of verses.