Friday, March 4, 2011

Bright Wings defy words.

Here's a book you would have thought couldn't lose:  Billy Collins edits poems about birds - both modern and classic - while David Allen Sibley provides the gorgeous watercolor-gouache illustrations. 

And yet.

A book of poems is a dark wonder.

A bird is a light spark.

Bird by bird cannot equal word by word.

This is what I learned.

We come upon birds one - or perhaps a flock, and a few - at a time.  So maybe 100 is too many, too much: stunning in aggregate, but overwhelming when we attempt to pick out one, then one, then one, and admire each for its singularity. 

Surfeit.  That may be at play here. 

And then of all 100 in such a large flock, there are bound to be the singularly beautiful, hardy specimens as well as the ruddy runts.  Maybe that happened too.

Yet I also wonder if with Collins's choice to purposely leap over the 'best of the best' (you won't find "The Wild Swans at Coole" or "The Windhover" or "Stripping and Putting On" here) to leave room for the plethora of lesser-read choices, he may have stumbled.  Turns out, it's not enough to write an earnest, clean poem describing a bird.  Instead, you need the richness, the resonance of a poem that's about whatever it's about and luminous on its own terms, but fueled by - or simply brushed by - the magic of the bird. (like the aforementioned Yeats and Hopkins and Swenson ones)

Some of the poems here are like that, but many are just poems with birds as subjects and very few sing through to the soul the way you'd want a poem to do.

Among the strong elements that still made Bright Wings worth reading, and for which I'm giving it a four out of five stars (my reasoning: a book of decent poems turns out to be far richer and deeper a reading experience than a slight, light thriller or comedy any day - and it lasts longer too.  Plus, this would make a lovely and thoughtful gift for any bird- and poetry- loving friend.):
Collins's introduction is worth the price of admission: He's such a strong prose stylist and briefly takes us on a tour of bird poems over the centuries, muses on why we so often try to capture these ineffable beings on paper.
Sibley's illustrations, though in this case somehow less awe-inspiring than when I gaze at his bird books, which I could do for hours, occasionally sing.  (If you don't have his bird books, know this: they are a wonder, and worth the investment for inspiration alone.  Start with his field guides, if you live in North America; otherwise, his guide to birds published by Audubon will do nicely.)
* Remembering how strong Jane Hirschfield's poems can be, and Mary Oliver, and David Wagoner, and Robert Penn Warren: worth the ride. 
* For me - and of course, poetry can be the most subjective of reading experiences - about 1/3 of the poems offered insight, something new and potentially enduring.  Perhaps my expectations for the whole collection were a tad too high is all.
And here's another thing I learned, and learning's why we read, in part:  The wonder of birds is ineffable in almost every case.  So just enjoy them as they are, pen your own poems for your own view, and let them go.  If a birdish poem works, truly moves through to a surprising truth, then the Muses have blessed you.  But don't think that just because birds are inspiring, your poem will be inspired.  You can't hold the winged ones for long anyway, and if you try and succeed, a captured bird's a bittersweet triumph after all.

Now:  a poem from this anthology that defies the trend I described earlier.  It occurs in the intro., and stunned me speechless.  I hadn't run across poet Ruth L. Schwartz before either... Finding her might be well worth wading through all the rest...
"The Swan at Edgewater Park"

Isn't one of your prissy rich people's swans
Wouldn't be at home on some pristine pond
Chooses the whole stinking shoreline, candy wrappers, condoms
   in its tidal fringe
Prefers to curve its muscular, slightly grubby neck
   into the body of a Great Lake,
Swilling whatever it is swans swill,
Chardonnay of algae with bouquet of crud,
While Clevelanders walk by saying Look
   at that big duck!
Beauty isn't the point here; of course
   the swan is beautiful,
But not like Lorie at 16, when
Everything was possible - no
More like Lorie at 27
Smoking away her days off in her dirty kitchen,
Her kid with asthma watching TV,
The boyfriend who doesnt' know yet she's gonna
Leave him, washing his car out back - and
He's a runty little guy, and drinks too much, and
It's not his kid anyway, but he loves her, he
Really does, he loves them both -
That's the kind of swan this is.
What'll I do?
1.  Look up what's happening at Audubon.  Then, next month, attend one local Audubon meeting, and/or volunteer for Audubon in some way.
2.  While in CA, make sure to take a birding walk in the Baylands.
3.  Draw a bird this week.  Post the results in my March Story.

MFB on bright wings,

Get it at:

FYI:  Girl power scale... 35 poems by women, 76 poems by men.  Just counting...


parrish lantern said...

Love the idea of this,so will be searching it out. Heres two bird related poetry books you may have heard of- Crow by Ted Hughes & White Egrets by Derek Walcott. thanks for the introduction to your bird book.

Laurie said...

Thanks so much for these ideas, parrish lantern, and I suspect that if you move more slowly through this collection than I happened to, it will be enjoyable indeed. Certainly there are a few gems here making it well worth the investment of your days.

Julie said...

I believe books are a great way of passing time, learning, and developing imagination. I always take them on my trips. Last year I went to Argentina and I had rented one of those buenos aires apartments so I had a lot of spare time. I used to go the the Botanic Garden to read since it was open every day of the week.

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