Friday, June 16, 2006

Poetry, Birds and Flat Tires

It’s my impression that literary anthologies have grown increasingly Balkanized in recent years. They seem aimed at narrow readerships that couldn’t amount to more than thousands or even hundreds of potential readers. The reason for this trend, of course, is the ascendancy of identity politics – people defining themselves by race, ethnicity or sex. Most such anthologies pose no temptation on the shelf, though I stumbled upon a worthy one Thursday at the University of Houston’s M.D. Anderson Library, and it came in very handy. The title, Birdsong, gives little away and, unusual for an anthology today, it bears no over-emphatic subtitle. As compiled by the bucolically named Dewi Roberts, it’s a collection of poetry and prose about birds written by Welsh writers.

It came in handy because as I was leaving the campus, my right rear tire went flat. I had driven over a nail. My two younger sons, 3 and almost 6, were in the back seat. I pulled into a university parking lot and called AAA, because I couldn’t remove the spare tire from the well in the trunk. The kids and I sat in the scant shade provided by the Newman Center and waited for the wrecker. They read books by Bill Nye the Science Guy and I read Welsh poetry about birds.

The selection ranges from The Mabinogion, a medieval collection of prose tales, to contemporary verse. The pieces are arranged by species or families – crows, larks, birds of prey, sea birds, game and farm birds. There are 20 poems about owls and eight about the nightingale. The big names are here – Dylan Thomas, R.S. Thomas, Vernon Watkins, Glyn Jones – but most of the names were new to me, including the appropriately named Peter Finch. Much of the work is of pleasing quality. Here’s an excerpt from Francis Kilvert’s diary, from 1870:

“On Easter Day all the young people come out in something new and bright like butterflies. It is almost part of their religion to wear something new on this day. It was an old saying that if you don’t wear something new on Easter Day the crows will spoil everything you have on.”

Here is Richard Poole’s “Circles”:

“Black upon azure, jackdaws wheel
above broken turrets of grey stone;
on loan from earth to sky, they return
when the fancy takes them, again feel
earthliness under their clawed toes.
So things go back to their origins –
creatures of feather, bone and skin
to the muck from which they arose.
Why cavil at simplicity,
The closing of the necessary circle?
Life cannot escape symmetry:
puddles vanish in sunlight, icicles
drip reluctant, lucid tears. They coldly
splash your childish hands, you drink them thoughtlessly.”

And here’s “Barn Owl” by the great R.S. Thomas:

Mostly it is a pale
face hovering in the afterdraught
of the spirit, making both ends meet
on a scream. It is the breath
of the churchyard, the forming
of white frost in a believer,
when he would pray; it is soft
feathers camouflaging a machine.

“It repeats itself year
after year in its offspring
the staring pupils it teaches
Its music to, that is the voice
Of God in the darkness cursing himself
Fiercely for his lack of love.

and there the owl happens
like white frost as
cruel and as silent
and the time on its
blank face is not
now so the dead
have nothing to go
by and are fast
or slow but never punctual
as the alarm is
over their bleached bones
of its night-strangled cry.”

The wrecker showed up but our troubles were not over. The driver, Fernando, couldn’t get the tire out of the truck either. For half an hour we banged and pried without success. The sky was almost cloudless and the official temperature was 93 degrees. The kids had drained our three bottles of water, when Fernando finally popped the fastener holding the tire in place. Changing it took two minutes. Fernando, a very sweaty gentleman with bruised hands, would not accept a tip. We had spent more than an an hour on the edge of that parking lot, surrounded, but for a strip of grass beside the Newman Center, by concrete and asphalt. In that time, I didn’t see, on the ground or aloft, a single bird.

Birdsong was published in 2002 by Seren, an imprint of Poetry Wales Press Ltd, of Bridgend, Wales.

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