Apr 25, 2014


Golden-Crowned Kinglet, I think

Early in my walk two weeks ago, before I came upon the garter snake, a sparrow-sized bird fluttered from a branch down to the brown leaves from the last few autumns. A second or two later, my brain registered that I'd seen some yellow on him. “Probably just another gold finch,” I thought, as I kicked myself for being jaded.

So I paused long enough for him to reappear, and indeed there was some yellow in his crown, yet he looked nothing like a gold finch. I'm pretty sure it was the golden crowned kinglet, a somewhat rare gift I came upon, near the same place about a year ago.

He flew off, and I figured the episode and my curiosity were finished. I came across the snake, got some pictures of him, plus a pair of blue jays, and had a pleasant walk.

Robin (American Thrush)
But when I got home, the bird with a yellow crown reappeared in my mind, and I got a little obsessive. I’ve had occasional luck with googling from faraway clues, so on a lark (terrible pun intended) I typed “golden-crowned sparrow,” and there he was—at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, of course. Unfortunately, he lives only on the west coast.

That could have been the end of the adventure, but the “Similar Species” included not only my guy, but also one of the warblers, called the ovenbird, which is the title critter of a Robert Frost poem. 

I figured I might as well reread Frost’s sonnet—it had been a long time, and some credible people have loved the poem. I liked it all right, especially the final line, which gives us calmly wonderful, troubling words and a big question:  what shall we “make of a diminished thing”?--such as a small, brown and mortal bird in a big forest where everything falls down sooner or later.

I love underdogs and other “diminished things.”  I probably think it’s immoral not to. Nobody needs more New York Yankees except for having a common enemy.

However, I also googled the big song of the little brown ovenbird; it’s anything but diminished. And he does have the minor glory of some yellow on his crown, which is more than most sparrows and wrens can say.

Song Sparrow (I think)
Then I struggled with some of Frost’s phrasing. His ovenbird says, “Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten,” which strikes me as a convoluted way to convey that spring has ten times more flowers than summer does. 

And what about this?

                            . . . the early petal fall is past
                When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
                On sunny days a moment overcast;
                And comes that other fall we name the fall.

    We can figure this out, but how important is it for the ovenbird to observe that rain brings down blossoms? Or the fact that birds and humans can deem rain odd if it happens on days that are mostly sunny, but yield to a “moment” of overcast skies and rain. True, that kind of rain is a bit rare, perhaps even sudden, unfair or precipitous, and Frost wants us to hear that the bird perceives this.

   Frost’s oven bird also understands that there are two or three falls:  the petals fluttering to the ground and “that other fall we name the fall.”  I’ll take Frost at his word that our less formal expression for autumn, “the fall,” comes from humans as we watch leaves fall—and perhaps life falling into winter death. But he might be making a rather big deal of this fairly old notion. Also, of course there's there's that third Fall, the one in Eden. How can I not hear the poem hinting at that? 
    But these concepts go at least as far back as Shakespeare, so I’m puzzled that Frost struggles to repeat them in a syntax I find somewhat labored. I wonder if he's sacrificed some clarity and perspective to the demands of the sonnet form (also, this is an unusual rhyme scheme for a Petrarchan sonnet—is that another result of a forced effort?).

    Yet, in spite of all my reservations, Frost saves the poem for me in two places. First, his oven bird notices “the highway dust is over all.” It's a small thing, but it adds to the poem's modernity, and it's slightly more original and less grand that the symbolic “fall” and falling business. 

    But the crowning blow, the home run, is Frost’s final line. Even if I wonder about its accuracy when applied to the ovenbird, I cannot fail to love the little bird’s phrasing in his question about himself and all of us, as he asks “what to make of a diminished thing.” 

   We all have been or will be diminished by nature’s seasons as well as the seasons in our individual lives, and I’ll bet every one of us has wondered, more than we admit, what to make of all that falling—spring petals, autumn leaves, little brown birds, ourselves.


Apr 10, 2014

Snakes, Stealth, Beauty: Emily Dickinson, D.H. Lawrence, A.E. Stallings

In my April 5, 2014 post about Jamaal May's "Hum for the Bolt," we were feeling lightning’s sneaky approach, its skill at getting near us before we realize it, then flashing a bolt of awareness and probably fright. Speaking of sneaky things that can be scary, yesterday I got my first photos of a snake, an Eastern Garter Snake, so I’m offering these three poems about snakes. I’ve posted links to them before, but not recently, and each fine poem is worth revisiting: Emily Dickinson’s “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass,” D. H. Lawrence’s “Snake,” and A.E. Stallings’ “Momentary.” 

One oddity I’ve noticed about poets is their interest in and fondness for snakes and crows, two creatures most people fail to love. I wonder if poets and artists have a penchant for loving what the mainstream eschews or even despises and demonizes. Why might that be?

I’m having a lot more luck with liking crows than snakes, but the fellow I met yesterday demonstrated serpentine beauty more than any of the (very few) snakes I’ve seen before. His colors, his lines, his absolute silence and silky smoothness in movement were stunning. I was having a big moment, but he was perfectly casual. Maybe I bored him.

We looked at each other for several seconds. I had room to pass him on the left, but I figured he could whip around on me if he felt like it, and I didn’t know what kind of snake he was, had no idea about his the potential for venom—or simple pain. No one else was around.

Attractive, slender and modest, maybe three feet in length, he looked as un-menacing as a snake can, which to me is till pretty menacing. I know the experts say they’re more afraid of us, blah blah. Experts screw up all the time. Just ask GM, Wall Street, and M.D.s who can’t decide about Vitamin E or eggs.

Ever the comedian, I hissed at the garter snake to shoo him away from my path. He gave me a look. In Snake, I’m pretty sure he said, “Are you shitting me?”

So I was about to take my chances with stepping left, far left, when he slid away like poured oil.

Back at home, I went of course to Wikipedia, and found information about garter snakes that was absolutely fascinating. Rather than going on and on (who, me?), I encourage all to check it out. The infinite variety on this single planet is stunning—an old idea, but one that gets refreshed over and over if we shut up and look. And get lucky.


Apr 5, 2014

Jamaal May, "Hum for the Bolt": Lightning Reconsidered

Hum for the Bolt by Jamaal May : Poetry Magazine

Blurred Edges

“Hum for the Bolt” is the title poem of a first book by the
up and coming Detroit poet, Jamaal May. We can see “Hum for the Bolt” as a spring poem, but more importantly, it’s simply an excellent work that presents the speaker’s wish to be lightning, “the Bolt.” (It reminds me of Emily
Dickinson’s concept of the poem as a force that blows the top of her head off.  I also hear Coleridge concluding his portrait of the mysterious poet as prophet or deity in “Kubla Khan”:

            His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
            Weave a circle round him thrice,
            And close your eyes with holy dread
            For he on honey dew hath fed,
            And drunk the milk of Paradise.
Father and Son?
Coleridge’s poet is at least a shaman and perhaps a deity, yet Jamaal May’s image of the poet strikes me as new and credible, powerful and scary yet appealing.

I suppose the speaker could be just some guy, maybe a lover who wants to be flashy, like lightning, in order to be noticed; or he could be a stalker trying to be sneaky and unnoticed except for that instant of victory flash.
Ghost Plane, Avatar
But how many men want to be lightning? How many would choose lightning over silk that lies romantically against an arm or an arrow that whistles
on its way to the kill? He might

            .  .  . love to be
the silk-shimmer

the curve of anyone’s arm,
brutal and impeccable as it’d be to soar
a crossbow with a whistle and have a man

off upon my arrival, it is nothing

But instead of lover or warrior, the speaker wants to be an illumination, scary and near. He
doesn’t just bring the light; he is the light “in this moment, in this doorway.” The immediacy, the Now is important. The poem messes with time and space: the flash is simultaneously “this far. . . . this close.”

Lover or stalker—what an excellent way to picture a poem, which was the communication, the light, we welcomed into living rooms and bedrooms before television came along. Maybe it is still the presence, power and magic that “eat the dark.”

Sneaky Enlightenment
Although the images of medieval warfare (“spaulder and
helm,” and maybe “have a man//switch off”) strike me as forced, I can live with them in exchange for the poem’s wonderful yet unexpected comparison of silk and water, or the rain that makes “a noisy erasure/of this town.” What does rain do if not erase towns—the edges and outlines of buildings and people. Yet I never
consciously thought of rainy cityscapes in that way. Again, the lightning replaces time and space with magic: “the flash that arrives//and leaves at nearly the same moment.”

May’s choice of “spaulder and helm” makes me realize once again that we don’t have to praise every inch of a poem or a person or the person’s oeuvre or a symphony or a country to say we like it. The more reasonable point is that we like plenty of what’s there. Maybe that’s what we should hope we can say about this day or this life. The bad or merely bland, boring moments might outweigh the good in simple-minded numbers, but there’s some good that keeps sneaking in for whose who can receive it, and some of it flashes like lightning, the fierce beauty and power of which cannot be measured or understood.

Lovers' Lane