—after Landis Everson
“A poem can often be made much more successful if the poet puts into the poem, freely and unselfconsciously, all the birds he wants. Once the poem is finished, he then simply discards all of them.” —L.E.
I’ve been reading bird-watchers’ blogs lately,
(is there some irony in that sentence, some synecdoche of the senses; the ladder of birds:
a hierarchy of verbs, gods or tools) these things are like accidental sonic artifacts
of nobody’s museum, maybe somebody’s memory, names of birds crashing against the glass
of the computer.
The ivory-billed woodpecker must be mentioned. As if saying their names
could bring them back: the sparrow outside the window that walked down the branch
like it committed some sin on the high seas, as if
it wanted in. To be for-
My favorite blog is some solider from Iraq who writes everyday about the hope of seeing beautiful birds. Every day. On March 18th in an open field across the street from the burn pit, the solider counted 575 black-headed gulls in various stages of molt, but lost count when an antiaircraft missile scared them away. On May 14th on a convoy over Kirkuk, a helicopter hit a bird. It landed inside the helicopter, near the pilot’s feet. Everyone took pictures. The bird was a male pin-tailed sand grouse. The solider ends, I’d like to see one alive, maybe later this year. He hasn’t posted an entry since.
In the future, say 100 years, this will be the poetry
people turn to. Our desire lacks an inner music. Describing a bird
is about as close as we come to the perfect poem.
Who wants to hear another poem about my dead uncle.
Maybe a few sentences like the silver bellies of birds
amalgamate the entire decimal system will still be around,
maybe a kite of bones.
Browsing through used books on 32nd Street, I heard a young man say into his cell phone
Hi, is this the number I’m supposed to call if I find a dead bird in the street?
Later, I saw a pigeon lying in the gutter, some boys without shirts on
were poking it with a stick. I wanted to say something
but I didn’t know what number to call.
Randy Johnson, the future Hall of Fame pitcher for the Yankees, refuses, to this day, to talk about the seagull he hit in Seattle with a 96 mph fastball in a spring training game in 1994. The wayward seagull exploded in mid-air, its body thudding in the grass as a flurry of white feathers held above the plate in a cloud. Johnson looked as if he wanted to go over to the bird, the way you’d go to check on a run-over dog, the way you’d stay by its side until it died, but he didn’t, in fact, he stood on the mound the whole time as the umpire crew cleaned up the mess. He didn’t even finish the inning, five batters later the manager wobbled out to the mound tapping his arm for a relief pitcher. This is what Eliot knew. This was the ghost that spoke to Blake. This was Yeats’s wife whispering in his ear, Spicer’s radio broadcasting the ballgame in the hot afternoon sun.
I once heard the heart
compared to the bewilderment of the first seagull to eat a fish
which I don’t know about
although I have fed both a seagull and my heart
an Alka Seltzer tablet,
which reminds me of seafoam left on the sand after a wave breaks
and the water retreats back inside itself.
The heart is not a seagull; Alka Seltzer won’t kill it;
it won’t fly away just because boys throw stones at it
and like poetry, it’s no thing
I heard Claudia Rankine read this poem about the first person to have an artificial heart. He was a black guy with some ironic last name like Hope. Anyway, the doctors didn’t want the media to know he was a black guy, in case the heart didn’t work, like he was some lower form of animal or something. As it turned out, the heart worked, so everyone came out a winner. When asked about the heart, the man said the weirdest part was being alive without having a heartbeat. Instead of a heartbeat, the man had a whirr. A never-ending whirr, like the sound of a fan a child puts on at night to help her sleep, even in the dead of winter. A machine hummingbird in his chest. Four pounds of metal keeping him alive. Rankin ended by saying the man had since died. I wondered what they did with the heart? Was it still running somewhere, or did someone turn it off? Did they take it out and reuse it like they do with certain actual organs, depending on what your driver’s license says, or is it still whirring inside the deadman’s chest in a cemetery in Alabama? Does the noise scare or excite the life around it? My friend won the PSA chapbook contest but had this hideous title like Lock It Master or something, so when she asked me for ideas for a title I told her The Long Whirr, but didn’t have the heart to tell her where it came from.
I got this magazine in the mail, where some artist or photographer or whatever
manipulates her shots by placing fake painted birds onto real braches in real forests
to get it “just right.” This has to do with desire. Light. Dead leaves. . . say “cheeeese.”
Keats was full of shit. I bet he never fingered a girl on a couch without knowing how, but then being sure he got it just right (negative capability). When I moved to New York, I wrote a poem about pigeon shit with lines like: trapped in your infinite wedding dress… the grass understands your martyred garden. Little palpable prayer/ your sadness stains the sidewalks of the world. The poem was supposed to be about art and beauty, but now I’m dumb enough to know it was simply about pigeon shit. Which is to say, truth. It was brilliant. You really should read it.
At AWP, I went to a panel on birds in contemporary poetry—
the truth is, I was late and they wouldn’t let me in without registering and an ID badge, so
I missed the whole thing.
I wore a nametag at the conference that read: Affiliation: birds
yet people went on
treating me like a person. Though some said we were doing good work “over there,”
which was hard to argue with. That night in the bathroom of some bar
I read all these surprising facts on the wall while pissing, stuff like
the weight of flatulence is less than an eyelash, but more than a snowflake.
When I came out, I started working
all these “facts” into my conversations with people. Mesmerized by the weight of farts,
a bunch of poets went to bed drunk, dreaming of snowflakes in their beloveds’ eyelashes.
I read a medical journal once to see what it would feel like,
then wrote a poem about an article that said songbirds
(they used the word “songbird”) use stars, moon, magnetism and light
the same way shepherds got around in the Bible.
The word homeieosickness kept coming up.
I remember radios were glued to the wingbacks of thrushes for “reasons of research.”
Spicer says the difference between poets and radios is the ability to develop scar tissue.
A man holding a bird down on the hood of his car, gluing a radio to its back, smiles
and says “You could learn a lot from birds.” The poem was an utter failure.
Jack Spicer pretending to be Fredrico Garcia Lorca says there is a little machine at the base of the throat that allows us to say anything. He goes on to say that flesh is not grass, that there’s an empty house and big dark carpets, a bed of moss—or was it music—to lie down in. Lorca would’ve appreciated the image, but birds made entirely of blood would have shot from his mouth when he laughed at the idea of those big dark carpets.
My friend wrote a poem called “Birds, Inc.” we all pretended to like.
It had to do with gulls being gulls
around the lighthouse, pecking at the dead, hungry
or not, unacknowledged champions
like Charlie Parker, which isn’t in the poem,
but should’ve been, and then
at the end, the point is supposed to be that the birds are all like this big company,
but to me, they are the CEOs
of the ocean, and we, we are the dead
bait, the unsinging. The pier disappearing in the distance.
No. Magic trick.
Whenever my girlfriend has to throw up she calls me on the phone
and makes me read her poems until she feels better—
I’ve stockpiled messages of me reading Jack Spicer on her answering machine,
Charlie Parker blazes in the background
like one of those machines that makes sounds of the rainforest and the ocean, etc.
I always end each message
with the poem about the one-legged seagull on the pier, fighting for the dead
bait, or is it the one where the Pope gets the hiccups?
Either way, once she lays the phone down, she will begin to dream
of someone who is almost like me.
Spicer has a poem without a single bird in it. That’s the actual title of the poem:
“A Poem Without a Single Bird in It”
In the poem his friends are eaten alive by images. And at the end
there is nothing left
after any of us die, except the calmness of poetry.
Or so the poem says.
Bird-watcher, 62, hit by errant gunshot dies
reads a headline in the Daily News (the tiny town I’m in
didn’t have the Times). The article seems to be reported by the dead woman’s sister.
I’m in a diner in Ossining eating rye toast, waiting
for magic. According to the sister, the woman was struck by a stray bullet
walking in the woods on her way to go bird watching. Harlem Hospital says that legally
the woman died from “severe blood loss due to the shooting.” I wonder what she died of
mystically speaking. The dead woman was a city employee for 17 years
we’re informed from the 52-word article. My toast is hard and cold. No arrests
have been made. “It’s very sad” said her 57-year-old sister, Deborah Bloom. Yes, I think,
it is very sad.
Sampson Starkweather is the author of The First Four Books of Sampson Starkweather and numerous chapbooks from dangerous small presses. He is a founding editor of Birds, LLC and works for The Center for the Humanities at The Graduate Center, CUNY where he helps run the Annual Chapbook Festival and Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative.
“A Limitation of Birds” originally appeared in TYPO.