Birds demand notice this time of year, showing up in numbers, raucous to rufous ones all making noise, alighting in all the places. Literature, like life in springtime Alaska, is rife with them. Entire anthologies pair birds and poetry. Writing about birds can be subject to an ironic valence now in this post-Portlandia “put a bird on it” world. I want to share two short bird poems, though, that speak to one another. First, one by Marilyn Nelson:
What if to taste and see, to notice things,
to stand each is up against emptiness
for a moment or an eternity—
images collected in consciousness
like a tree alone on the horizon—
is the main reason we’re on the planet.
The food’s here of the first crow to arrive,
numbers two and three at a safe distance,
then approaching the hand-created taste
of leftover coconut macaroons.
The instant sparks in the earth’s awareness.
She said she was watching crows eat holiday leftovers—especially the macaroons—she’d tossed out onto snow before she wrote this. I appreciate the almost effortless leap from the ordinary to extraordinary, from common crows to speculations about “whether it’s possible to have Gaia consciousness,” as she describes it. She doesn’t prescribe a lens for us, but wonders aloud about it—“What if”, she says—and welcomes us in for a test drive.
Jim Harrison, who passed this year, is known for his rural sensibilities and books that place people and animals together. Prolific as a poet and fiction writer, he joins Marilyn Nelson in also writing—a bit more imaginatively—about our human capacity to bring consciousness to bear on the world.
A secret came a week ago though I already
knew it just beyond the bruised lips of consciousness.
The very alive souls of thirty-five hundred dead birds
are harbored in my body. It’s not uncomfortable.
I’m only temporary habitat for these not-quite-
weightless creatures. I offered a wordless invitation
and now they’re roosting within me, recalling
how I had watched them at night
in fall and spring passing across earth moons,
little clouds of black confetti, chattering and singing
on their way north or south. Now in my dreams
I see from the air the rumpled green and beige,
the watery face of earth as if they’re carrying
me rather than me carrying them. Next winter
I’ll release them near the estuary west of Alvarado
and south of Veracruz. I can see them perching
on undiscovered Olmec heads. We’ll say goodbye
and I’ll return my dreams to earth.
We’re still gaining over five minutes of light per day in Southcentral Alaska, with daylength over 17 hours and counting. Like images inside Marilyn Nelson’s mind, or Jim Harrison’s imagined birds inside his very body, itself a “habitat”, it’s hard not to feel the outside world down inside at this time of year. A season to “spring” back to life, indeed.
Try this: look outside, or better yet, take a walk, and then write a short piece inspired by this short Harrison list poem:
I believe in steep drop-offs, the thunderstorm across the lake
in 1949, cold winds, empty swimming pools,
the overgrown path to the creek, raw garlic,
used tires, taverns, saloons, bars, gallons of red wine,
abandoned farmhouses, stunted lilac groves,
gravel roads that end, brush piles, thickets, girls
who haven’t quite gone totally wild, river eddies,
leaky wooden boats, the smell of used engine oil,
turbulent rivers, lakes without cottages lost in the woods,
the primrose growing out of a cow skull, the thousands
of birds I’ve talked to all of my life, the dogs
that talked back, the Chihuahuan ravens that follow
me on long walks. The rattler escaping the cold hose,
the fluttering unknown gods that I nearly see
from the left corner of my blind eye, struggling
to stay alive in a world that grinds them underfoot.
(from In Search of Small Gods, Copper Canyon Press, 2010)