Wednesday, June 27, 2012

`Night Plinks with Voices'

Last month in Mszana Dolna, Poland, I opened the heavy wooden front door to a restaurant and found a brown bat lying on the floor, on its back, twitching. With wings spread he measured four inches across. His eyes and mouth were open and I saw his orthodontically perfect teeth. With a travel brochure I scooped him up and deposited him under a shrub where he went on twitching, but at least he wouldn’t be squashed by a careless or disgusted diner. Bats are ugly winged miracles, gifted with senses humans are too dull even to imagine. Eric Ormsby projects himself into one in “What It Is Like to Be a Bat” (Time’s Covenant, 2007), which is also the title of a well-known article by the philosopher Thomas Nagel:

“Night is algorithmic: dark,
Archimedean. Cosines of echo
Structure the night. A peep
Subtends from the slick
Bodies of crickets. The gauzy
Reverberations of moths are not
The curt returns from smokestack or from arch.

“Night is a cloth, crinkling
With secret threads, alert
To the listening ear as any sun.
Night is a calculus
Of cries where bodies are
Connected in the parallax
Of coincident voices, ripple-precise.

“Night plinks with voices.
These are the torn orbits
Of escaping voices, the stridulence
Of beetles, steely timbres of the katydid.
There are loving collocations
Of ridges known only by sound-shadows, loud
Shards of home demarcated by pipings
In darkness beyond all superfluities
Of sight. There are the welcoming crests
Of other cries, sweeter than the green
Panic of lacewings, that phosphor
All along the sleep-furred, down-
Gloved bodies of our caverned families.”

Ormsby goes beyond admiring bats to envying them, and clearly understands the physics of echolocation. His poem, appropriately, is an exquisitely modulated chamber of sounds (“superfluities / of sight”). The human ear is sensitive to sound frequencies from 40 Hertz (waves per second) to 20,000 Hertz. We are, in effect, deaf to higher frequencies, ultrasound. The higher the frequency, the more detailed the picture seen (heard) by the bat. Next week I undergo an echocardiogram, a sort of ultrasound procedure for the heart. Thanks to Ormsby, I’m imagining the transducer over my chest as a bat, the sonogram his field of vision. He will see what I can’t hear. Ormsby’s fondness for bats remains evident in his recently published “Lunar Innuendos”:

“That bluish cataract milky with age,
the moon’s grey glimpse gauzed by night

“Scuffed and ochreous as a child’s lost ball
discovered under last December’s ice,

“With necrotic shadows wisping its forehead
— the sudden pleasure of death after long pain —

“Invents its spires and beginning belfries.
The moon is not cold cinder swathed

“In the stark fixative of thermal glass
nor even speechless stone freckled with gleams

“Nor a chill foundation for persuasive air.
Don’t be misled by its shrewd blue gaze: 

“The small brown bat can clasp it in his mouth.”

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