Tuesday, June 01, 2010

`When Our Portion Isn't Generous'

Another gray, drizzling morning, even on Memorial Day, the symbolic start of summer. I slide open the back door to carry trash to the bin and hear a robin noodling in the neighbor’s yard. The sound is welcome though the song is repetitious, musically ingrown like a bad bop solo. Thoreau celebrated the robin’s song a dozen times or more in his journal but his entry for April 11, 1852, is different:

“The song of a robin on an oak in Hubbard’s Grove sounds far off. So I have heard a robin within three feet in a cage in a dark barroom (how unstained by all the filth of that place?) with a kind of ventriloquism so singing that his song sounded far off on the elms. It was more pathetic still for this. The robins are singing now on all hands while the sun is setting. At what expense any valuable work performed! At the expense of a life! If you do one thing well, what else are you good for in the meanwhile?”

When did Thoreau visit a barroom, and why? But that’s another story. The sentimental image of a wild bird caged and singing is hardly original. Think of Blake’s “The Schoolboy”: “How can the bird that is born for joy / Sit in a cage and sing?” But Thoreau’s details, some sordid – barroom, filth, “three feet away” – and the questions the bird provokes, lend it plangency. The final three sentences imply some private connection with the bird, a covert affinity. Thoreau wrote well, better perhaps than any American, but “what else [was he] good for in the meanwhile?” Not much, his Yankee conscience nags (like some of his Concord neighbors). Had the identification been more explicit, the passage would have read like cloying self-pitying. Instead, it’s bittersweet and touching.

His journal entry reminds me of a new poem, “Ledge,” in Kay Ryan’s The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (2010):

“Birds that love
high trees
and winds
and riding
flailing branches
hate ledges
as gripless
and narrow,
so that a tail
is not just
no advantage
but ridiculous,
mashed vertical
against the wall.
You will have
seen the way
a bird who falls
on skimpy places
lifts into the air
again in seconds –
a gift denied
the rest of us
when our portion
isn’t generous.”

My favorite phrase is the bird’s tail “mashed vertical.” Again, as with Thoreau’s robin, a bird is out of place, but some can fly off “in seconds.” For us, like birds in cages, this is “a gift denied.” Today, “portion” suggests dieting and weight reduction but in Ryan’s poem it sounds biblical, of the Old Testament, as in Ecclesiastes 2:21: “For there is a man whose labour is in wisdom, and in knowledge, and in equity; yet to a man that hath not laboured therein shall he leave it for his portion. This also is vanity and a great evil.” “Portion” implies one’s lot in life, not always a sunny prospect. When our portion, rightful or not, is ungenerous, we can accept it and remain on our ledge, resolve to try soaring in another direction or fall unfledged.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Baudelaire's albatross too. One could probably write an long essay or short book about birds in poetry.