Monday, July 27, 2020

'Our Nimble-Kneed Astaire'

How does the name of a Eurasian bird end up as a metaphor in working-class conversation in Cleveland? When my parents wished to mock someone who spoke endlessly and mindlessly, they might call him a magpie. It implied empty chatter, noise for its own sake. But why not a myna or parrot, birds they had actually seen? Years later I learned the magpie was renowned for collecting and hoarding shiny objects, which supplied a second useful  avian metaphor. (Think of Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie.)  Off hand, I can’t recall another bird so generous with figures of speech. Mockingbird? Old crow? Eagle-eyed? Owlish? Pigeon-toed?

Magpies belong to the genus Pica, which supplies the latter half of the bird’s common name. Magpies are corvids, along with crows, ravens, rooks and jays, among others. These are smart birds. Magpies are among the few non-mammal species able to recognize their own reflection in mirrors. They are tastefully beautiful birds, elegant and classy, with a touch of the aristocratic. In the final lines of “Lord Mayor Magpie,” Eric Ormsby plays with that idea:

“. . . this debonair
line dancer in mid-air,
domino dapper
with morning-coat manners,
stiff tailed, caustic of caw,
parliamentary of demeanour,
our nimble-kneed Astaire

“who refuses all obeisance
to Lagerfeld or Wintour.
His black eye crackles, his attire is dour.
He favours classic all-occasion wear.”

Ormsby has often devoted poems to birds, though not in the Mary Oliver spirit of sensitivity and nature worship. He happily anthropomorphizes them, turning them into character studies. I once called him an “ornithological/Theophrastian maker of verses.”


Edward Bauer said...

My soft spot for magpies began with the wonderful Heckle and Jeckle, whose two personalities seem to reflect the complexity you describe.

boromax said...

There is one other bird that is probably more "generous with figures of speech." The ubiquitous, unflappable chicken.