Wednesday, May 08, 2013

`Cinereous, Nearly Invisible'

Midday among the shadows of the water oak, thirty feet off the sidewalk, the young screech owls might be mistaken for galls or knots, formless bumps in silhouette along the horizontal branch. They wobble a little, adjusting their grip. Even from this distance the stare is disarming, at once childlike and demented. You want to cuddle them as though they were stuffed animals, knowing one idle jab could take out your eye. These are masterful predators. L.E. Sissman writes in the final lines of “A War Requiem” from his second book, Scattered Returns (1969): 

“Snow begins
To lance against the window, and I see,
By luck, a leisurely and murderous
Shadow detach itself with a marine
Grace from an apple tree. A snowy owl,
Cinereous, nearly invisible,
Planes down its glide path to surprise a vole.” 

“Cinereous” is a worthy salvage job. The most recent usage cited in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1865. In my inner ear, the word echoes with “cinder,” which is not too far off: “Of an ashy hue, ash-coloured, ashen-gray; spec. in names of birds having ash-coloured feathers.” Sissman was a great admirer of Evelyn Waugh (here and here). In his funniest novel, Scoop (1938), when The Daily Beast mistakes William Boot, a nature writer, for a war correspondent, the newspaper dispatches him to the East African republic of Ishmaelia. On his return to England he resumes writing his “Lush Places” column, rhapsodizing “maternal rodents pilot[ing] their furry brood through the stubble.” In the novel’s final line, Waugh writes: 

“Outside the owls hunted maternal rodents and their furry broods."

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