If you’re a regular here, you might remember that I was quite positive about Deborah Digges’ “Vesper Sparrows” on March 7. Here are the first five lines again:
I love to watch them sheathe themselves mid-air,
shut wings and ride the light’s poor spineto earth, to touch down in gutters, in the rainbowedurine of suicides, just outside Bellevue’s walls.
How many poets of any era would have the ear and the judgment to decide that three lines of unqualified prettiness are enough. Maybe Digges was thinking, "Let’s switch to a different key—oh, I don’t know. Maybe . . . some. . . 'rainbowed/urine of suicides.'” Add in some cadavers from Bellevue, while we're at it.From in there the ransacked cadavers are carried . . .
Will anyone out there claim to have thought of birds sheathing themselves in mid-air, after which their wings are “shut” as they ride “the light’s poor spine//to earth”? Liar! That combination of accuracy and imagination is stunning. More than once in guides to brids, I've read about the "undulating" flight of finches. So how could I have missed the sheathing of wings in the flight of finches and other small birds at dusk? How could I have failed to see that those wings are then, briefly, shut, like the doors of a car? Ms. Digges, you are more observant, more metaphorical, more incisive than I am. I envy it and admire it.
|Gold Finch after Evening Bath|
Well, “Darwin’s Finches” probably does, hence its usefulness as an example. This makes for pretty rich prose, but it still raises the question, does it need or deserve to be broken into lines of poetry? Look at how natural it sounds and feels without line breaks:
Darwin's Finches by Deborah Digges
My mother always called it a nest, the multi-colored mass harvested from her six daughters' brushes, and handed it to one of us after she had shaped it, as we sat in front of the fire drying our hair. She said some birds steal anything, a strand of spider's web, or horse's mane, the residue of sheep's wool in the grasses near a fold where every summer of her girlhood hundreds nested. Since then I've seen it for myself, their genius— how they transform the useless. I've seen plastics stripped and whittled into a brilliant straw, and newspapers—the dates, the years— supporting the underweavings.
Simply by shifting and expanding the subject into a Section 2, Digges builds some energy and interest. Then the shifts within it further deserve the label of poetry—good poetry at that. The subject of mortality and an afterlife have rarely been conveyed with more surprise--and an appropriate delicacy.
|Did You Know the Cardinal Is Also a Finch?|
I like and admire both poems, and I don't mean to make everything a competition. However, "Vesper Sparrows" comes out sprinting, charging, and challenging from Line 1 onward, while "Darwin's Finches" takes its time. It might be more elegant and gracious, befitting its themes, but "Vesper Sparrows" astonishes me somewhat gently in Lines 1-3, then turns my head into a punching bag in Line 4 and never lets up. Call me a masochist, but I like that. I'd rather not wait for a poem to find its energy; that's part of my harping about a gift in every line. However, it would be nice to have make such distinctions about kinds of excellence and power in every pair of poems I come across.