Jun 14, 2013


Believe it or not, I’ve been trying to shorten my posts, but one thing or another about a good poem teases me into holding the podium. In Sidney Wade’s “Birding at the Dairy,” the lure was the unlikely sum of three references to birds that are in some way “headed,” culminating in a “many-headed” flock. A yellow-headed blackbird, a brown-headed cowbird, and a “many-headed” “congress” of starlings--so much “headed”-ness is surely no accident in a poem as intelligent, faithful in detail and rich in metaphor as “Birding at the Dairy.”  Wade’s witnessing of starlings hooked the minor league birder in me, word count be damned. So, courtesy of the Academy of American Poets website, here it is:


Wade’s speaker is surprised by the birds, maybe a thousand, as they take flight, more or less in unison and in shifting patterns. In the lexicon of birders, a flock of starlings is called a “murmuration," and anyone who’s seen even a small murmuration of starlings rising and then waltzing in the air might agree that they seem a “congress / of wings.” That includes both the chummy accord and the corruption we might hear in the word “congress.” “Commingles,” “Maneuvering,” and “schooling” are also unromantic words that might not smell entirely wonderful; they might even feel close to something sinister in a poem that’s almost mystically positive about the starlings, for the most part. Remember this slight ambivalence as we continue to marvel at the birds' harmony in large waves that “undulate” and “turn liquid” as they rise. 

In fact, when we hear “undulate,” we might think of snakes.  Among birds, starlings (which in the U.S. are invaders from Europe) have a lousy reputation, and surely there’s something spooky about any many-headed animal.


Mythology supports a feeling we're likely to have about polycephaly (having two or more heads), perhaps because we humans find that our single heads are often more than we can cope with. In any case, having multiple heads is natural as a nightmare trope, in real-life as well as literature and art.

It's no surprise, then, that Wade’s many-headed bird tribe also alludes to ancient monsters.  Wikipedia tells us that antiquity offered different portraits of Cerberus, the dog that guards the gates of Hell to prevent the damned from escaping:   “The most notable difference is the number of its heads:  Most sources describe or depict three heads; others show it with two or even just one; a smaller number of sources show (sic) a variable number, sometimes as many as 50 or even 100.”

Another image from the Ancients is the Hydra monster:  “In Greek mythology, the Lernaean Hydra (Ancient Greek:Λερναία δρα) was an ancient serpent-like chthonic water beast, with reptilian traits (as its name evinces), that possessed many heads — the poets mention more heads than the vase-painters could paint, and for each head cut off it grew two more — and poisonous breath and blood so virulent even its tracks were deadly.[1] The Hydra of Lerna was killed by Hercules as the second of his Twelve Labours.” Surely Sidney Wade's undulating body of starlings suggests serpents, and in their sheer numbers and magical formations, perhaps the Hydra in particular. 

For more headed-ness, here’s Wikipedia on the yellow-headed blackbird, a very handsome creature. “They often migrate in huge flocks with other species of birds,” which is a behavior noted in the poem. Also, “They nest in colonies, often sharing their habitat closely with the Red-winged Blackbird.”  

Compared to monsters and magic, the "Dairy" in the poem’s title seems all milk and cheese, a wholesome base for birders. However, in checking up on yellow-headed blackbirds (again, in Wikipedia as well as The Cornell Lab of Ornithology), I learned that they breed as far east and north as Wisconsin, where dairy is king.  Still, it's more reasonable to think of them as a predominantly western and southwestern bird, and thus a bird that seems out of place, or at least unexpected, near a dairy. 

Also, note that it's a marsh bird that (paradoxically?) favors hot, dry climates, but the immediate connotation of “dairy” suggests Midwestern or Northeastern greenness.  So the poem’s title info, “Birding at the Dairy,” might set up a contrast--yellow-headed blackbirds from the high plains and desert appear in the creamy Midwest. Landscape, birds, and relative humidity are all somewhat surprising or twofold in the poem’s world. Is this yen and yang, or a duality that implies conflict? Whatever the answer, surprise, if not unease, is an important feature. 

brown-headed cowbird
As for the brown-headed cowbird, its reputation is almost as bad as the starling’s:  the cowbird “is a brood parasite: it lays its eggs in the nests of other small passerines (perching birds).”  That’s also from Wikipedia, where the information about cowbirds and the other, hosting species is fascinating. I urge readers to spend a few minutes on Wikipedia's discussion of the cowbird’s peculiar, if not evil habits.

The cowbirds make a life-and-death mess of things for the other birds that host them, but they’re also just doing what they’re wired to do. Considering the implications of that for humans is another topic, and true, we are not birds. Still, go ahead and consider it. Such exploration is one of the main benefits of poetry. 

Birders seek out new or rare birds—or birds with singular beauty or singular behavior, such as starlings, which really do “swarm” and “undulate.” (See the video below).  Some species carry the brand of scoundrel, yet their appearance and some of their behaviors are stunning. In addition to undulating, and convening as a “congress,” and “murmur”ing as a collective, look what else Sidney Wade’s starlings do. They are a:

            wave that veers

            and wheels, a fleet
            and schooling swarm 

            in synchronous alarm,
            a bloom radiating 

            in ribbons, in sheets,
            in waterfall,

            a murmuration
            of birds

            that turns
            liquid in air . . . .

It’s a visual symphony. If you doubt it, see the video in the link below. (In fact, please see it, period). Why should we be surprised that such an image suddenly rhymes at the end, as the word “prayer” echoes “air”?

But it’s a  “seething” prayer, which calls up feelings of fury and aggression—appropriate for many-headed animal-monsters, one of whom guards the River Styx at the boundary of Hell. And neither starling nor yellow-headed blackbird nor brown-headed cowbird has a pleasant song. What they issue is closer to a growl, glug and screech than a lullaby, yet Wade calls it a prayer. She catches the paradox or duality or dichotomy—whatever it is—at the heart of so much beauty. 

Beauty wins, but in the wonder of it, it's also foreign and at least vaguely threatening. It's a beauty that is fleeting yet timeless, "fluid" yet suggestive of perfection and eternity, especially if we allow for the role of memory, which preserves our experiences with the gorgeous and the stunning. 
cardinal, snow, ambivalence

In the face of magnificence, we are diminished, dwarfed, threatened by an image so alien and large, so much better than we are. It might even be divine; in the end, the starling's murmuration is 

            the breath

            of a great
            seething prayer.

Surely this sounds like an epiphany, including the original religious overtones of the word. Yet we’re ambivalent about it—its appetites! The glory we witness might overtake us—or it already has. So we are humbled, and we pray. Maybe the starlings are the form of our prayer, and maybe, like them, we are so fervent that we seethe, croak and gurgle as we become our own prayer, in both shape and content.

Is it because the starlings follow each other—I almost said “blindly”—in such majestic patterns of flight that they become a prayer? Whatever the answers, there’s no doubt that these birds are a gathering of disparate beings, and I suggest that this includes not only the individual birds in the murmuration but also all birds and all of nature in a coming together with humanity. Whoever offers that prayer and whoever is that prayer, in all its visual drama, the sound of it is a murmur.

cardinal, snow, humility
To appreciate how spectacular a murmuration of starlings can be, and to read more about them, click below. Oh, please click below and watch the two-minute video. I know it takes time, but it’s a pleasure, and you’ll be a better person afterward.

My thanks to the Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day for making me aware of the poem.



Barbaro said...

Cool "serpent" pictures. Where did you take them?

Very impressive video. Along with your ornithological hand-holding, it makes me appreciate the poem more--but at the same time, it reminds me how hopelessly flaccid all poetry seems against a natural phenomenon the likes of what's on the video.

Anonymous said...

Three things (I guess that would be a crowd of things):

1. I watched the video, and I am a better person for it. I felt that immediately, and the next person I meet will say, "By God, Karin. I never much liked you before, but suddenly you're ever so much better."

2. The rhythm of the poem captured the flight.

3. I saw Sidney Wade's photo. She's beautiful. And probably even a better person than I am right now.

RuneE said...

Thank you for this one and for the video. Amazing stuff, although I have seen minor versions in real life. BTW, I heard recently that such movements are covered by chaos theory - take it for what it's worth.

Another thought: Exchange the many-varied birds with many varied humans and read it again.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Ditto most of Karin's comments.

Wade's poem captures the excitement and frustration in looking for a specific bird! I'm still hunting for the Say's Phoebe for you, Banjo.
To read Wade's comment below the poem on her passion for birding makes the poem 'stronger'. It comes from the heart and head.

Cowbirds are similar to relatives I have. They show up at your house, dump their kids, ruin lives,... well, you know the cycle. Cowbirds be damned, even if they have a cool song!

Photos - excellent as EVER!

Banjo52 said...

Thanks, everyone. Enjoyable and interesting comments! It seems you got into it even more than usual this time. And you didn't yell at me for my windbag-ed-ness.

Barbaro, welcome back and thanks. The first serpent lives in a nature center near Detroit. Second serpent is, I think, a live oak in Washington Oaks State Park, Florida.

I think you know I’ll never argue with your point about art vs. the nature it imitates—unless you wanna talk about air conditioning and comfortable chairs and the absence of mosquitoes and blizzards and creatures eating each other, nature wins every time, at least when it comes to beauty. But it’s hard to take it home with you.

AH, congrats on your conversion! I’m glad people are noticing the change. That’s funny stuff. When I set out to make a better person, the naysayers should get out of the way.

Wade’s photo—I see your point, but she’s glamour-ing it up a bit for my tastes. Isn’t there a law that poets must be frumpy, mussed and tangled? “His flashing eyes, his floating hair!” I saw/heard her read once, but I was too far away for a hotness or loveliness assessment. (Those are two separate things, aren’t they?)

Rune, fascinating propositions. I don’t know enough about chaos theory to understand the point entirely, but the word text accompanying the video of the murmuration might touch on similar stuff--actual explanations of how starlings accomplish it. I’m gonna look into that. Science and Poetry should help each other.

Switching birds and humans—interesting! You know, there are times when a murmuration of humans seems possible—sometimes in crowded city streets. Or new graduates of various ethnicities, fresh-faced in cap and gown and marching or mingling after commencement--undulating, sort of. And above all, car traffic on the major highways—when we seem so thrilled to kill each other with guns and bombs, what a miracle that the freeways aren’t even bloodier than they are, all that merging and clover-leafing and stop-lighting. And my god, the YIELDING! Who knew people would actually YIELD, under the right circumstances. A few people even abide by the unwritten “rules” of the road. Maybe we’re as capable as starlings after all.

Brenda, yes, I figured she had to be at least as big on birds as I am or most people are. I’m pretty sure she, or her introducer at the reading I mentioned, said she’s into the ancients and tends toward formalism. Somehow the combo of a classicist and nature lover strikes me as a little unusual. But when you add on “birder,” oh yes, I bet birders like rhyme more than living poets do. “This goes here; that goes there. I have this many of those on my life list--in alphabetical order.” Whereas most living poets might be thinking, with Kris Kristofferson, “Help Me Make It through the Night.”

As for cowbird relatives . . . I've been lucky--that hasn’t happened to me, but I know it's fairly common. I think the cowbird’s “song” sounds like a shriek. Maybe you can shriek back at them.

Hannah Stephenson said...

Really interesting poem! There is so much confusion in the beginning of it, for me (yellow-headed blackbird? cowbird?), much like when a color is written in another color. It's disorienting...

The line breaks exacerbate this feeling for me.

But then the end is very calming...it's an interesting switch!

Stickup Artist said...

That video gave me a series of body-rushes! And Sidney Wade did an excellent job of translating such a scene in words and tempo. When I see stuff like this, I wonder how much subtle forms of communication are lost to humans. Surely these quickly shifting maneuvers and patterns of flight without mishap must be orchestrated by some kind of internal radar that transmits instantaneously.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I now know what the basis for the work cuckold is - Cuckoo, and aren't they beautiful for a parasitic creature? Many are - and how they get away with it.

I've seen that particular video many times. I love the woman's expression at the end. A tornado of a billion beating hearts

I bet airports hate them

Ken Mac said...

I actually write for a living, but I know nothing of poetry. So I always learn a lot here. Curious, who are your favorite European poets?

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