Thursday, March 08, 2012

`He Compliments Existence'

If he weren’t so indelibly conspicuous, so Mardi Gras-flamboyant within a narrow palette, I might have questioned the obvious, but the male bobolink looks like no other bird. His face, belly and tail are black and shiny. His shoulders and lower back are white, and he wears a pale-yellow skullcap. Houston is west of the bird’s usual migratory route, but I confirmed that local sightings are not uncommon. I saw him in a marshy patch several miles west of the Rice University campus, bobbing on a cattail in a thoroughly urban setting.

In seventh grade, the comely Miss Wagy introduced us to William Cullen Bryant’s jokey, sentimental and irresistibly recitable “Robert of Lincoln”: “Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link, / Spink, spank, spink.” Only later did I learn of Dickinson’s fondness for the bird and its eponymous song. (Go here, here, here and here.) The best of her bobolink poems is the one beginning: 

“The Way to know the Bobolink
From every other Bird
Precisely as the Joy of him—
Obliged to be inferred.”

After finding a mate his song may sound less joyful, as his fancy duds will turn dowdy, but the bird I heard Wednesday morning was ebullient, a singer reveling in his repertoire. In her fourth stanza Dickinson writes:

“Extrinsic to Attention
Too intimate with Joy—
He compliments existence
Until allured away…”

Like any first-rate artist, the bobolink “compliments existence.”

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