Apr 11, 2012

Deborah Digges, "Vesper Sparrows" and "Darwin's Finches"

Song Sparrow

 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 spine
         to earth, to touch down in gutters, in the rainbowed   
            urine of suicides, just outside Bellevue’s walls.
From in there the ransacked cadavers are carried . . .
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.

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.

Not much literature of any genre is this rich and dense, sudden and dramatic, yet there's nothing cheap, undeserved, or melodramatic in Digges' shifts of subject, mood and tone. In those five lines, she demonstrates why free verse at its best owes no apology to fixed forms of rhyme and meter. Here once again is the whole poem:  Vesper Sparrows by Deborah Digges : The Poetry Foundation

Gold Finch after Evening Bath
Today I offer another Deborah Digges poem, “Darwin’s Finches,” which I find lovely, yet not quite the achievement of “Vesper Sparrows.” To attempt to support my point, here is Section 1, which I’ve laid out as prose. Why? To suggest that it might be as close to prose as it is to poetry, which is the risk free verse always takes. Does it need to be poetry? Does it deserve to be poetry?

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.

House Finch

[For some reason, Blogspot has dictated that I keep on italicizing. What Blogspot wants . . .  Anyway, from here on, it's just me, not Digges, and in a just world it would be plain text. You may go to the following site for the whole poem. I'm sorry I couldn't find it in the form of a single click; please copy and paste this address--it's worth it]: 


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?
But it took all of Section 1 to get this. Or did it?  How much of Section 1 is essential if we’re to arrive at Section 2, both nourished by that first body of information, and surprised, in a good way, at the switch to a love poem and a tenderly complex meditation on mortality?

      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. 



Hannah Stephenson said...

I love the easing in poem you present today.

We need both, the slap and the faked yawn, hand slipped around the shoulder.

I am sure I have posted this Franz Wright poem here before, but that one clobbers me (not very easy at all).

On Earth

Resurrection of the little apple tree outside
my window, leaf-
light of late
in the April
called her eyes, forget
but how
How does one go
about dying?
Who on earth
is going to teach me-
The world
is filled with people
who have never died

Banjo52 said...

Boom! I've got to go back to the opening a few more times, but the second half has clobber power, for sure--and I bet some of it comes from the trickier, slower first half. Thanks, Hannah. I like that "hand slipped around a shoulder" too; great way to think of some poems.

Rune Eide said...

I admit that this is beyond me (once again :-) ) - I'll have to stay with the original Darwin's finches ...

However, I have no problem with admiring the bird photography!

Banjo52 said...

RuneE, I'm a fan of admitting what you just did. It surely happens to me often enough. As you can probably tell, I urge people to find a single line or image they find appealing, then try to figure out why. Maybe the enjoyment ends there, maybe it grows wider; either way it's a win of some kind.

About the photos, thank you. In my fairly recent venture into bird watching, and bird luring, finches were my first success among colorful birds. They're not shy eaters.

As for Darwin, I only know finches were really, really important in his thinking. I like what Deborah Digges does with his sailors--a dreamy rather than dry, bookish way to work them and Darwin into the poem.

Anonymous said...

Look at all them werds. Will try later. Pretty birdies.

Banjo52 said...

Southern Indiana talk! I speak it.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Interesting comment via Hannah.

I looked up "Vesper" whose meaning gave Digge's poem a further layer of texture. Now I'm going to have to look up prose. Is the last post I did on Twyla prose? I think your causing me to go back to school

damn it
damn it
damn it Albert

btw: those two last photos are lovely. The background with the cardinal looks like a Jackson Pollock drip painting

Banjo52 said...

Thanks, PA. Surely you have dictionaries stationed at several key locations in your abode . . . It's all the rage.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

ha! guess not...

a girlfriend came over yesterday and ripped my Twyla post apart. Misspellings, mis-contractions their there they're blah blah blah etc.

Banjo52 said...

PA, I'm decent at the grammar/spelling biz, but I try to be careful because I've known some others who are excellent at it--and not much else.

Anonymous said...

I think misspellings are kinda cute -- PA's are. Sometimes it adds to the sincerity of the piece. I do have an issue with those who spell perfectly yet still manage to say nothing.

Jean Spitzer said...

http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19201 is the link to Darwin's Finches.

Thanks for the poems and the photos.

Banjo52 said...

Jean, welcome back and thanks for catching the typo.


I'll blame Blogspot, just as I'm sure they'd blame me. I wonder how many have missed the poem because the address I gave landed them on Bukowski of all people.

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