I once took a poetry workshop led by Bill Olsen during which I felt alternately terrified and inspired, and for some reason a moment from that semester that has stayed with me was Bill looking out a window, pausing the discussion of a poem for a surprisingly long time, and saying in his almost-whisper, “Poets love birds.”
This, even outside the spell of Bill’s class, still seems true. And not just poets, of course—many people obsess about birds. “Bird watching” gets its own classification as an activity over all the other kinds of watching, and the poet as perhaps our most tender observer does seem to favor a bird. I wonder for a minute why we so adore these aloof, twitchy poopers, and then I remember: they can sing, and they can fly.
The singing part we find beautiful—an endeavor shared with humans and whales and a few other things, and birds seem especially good at it. Unlike most of us, birds never seem off key. The flying, though, astounds us. Our ground-tethered perspective makes us suckers for an animal that can fly. Bugs can fly too, of course, but fuck bugs. Bugs can lift a million times their own weight or fly at mach speed and we remain unimpressed. Bugs annoy, and we save our praise for the more sentient beasts. We are jerks.
But birds on the wing do still knock me out, with their odd strength and fragility. I feel like if I touched any of the birds approaching our feeder they would shatter, or their little trilling hearts would explode.
So, poets and people love birds for their soaring and their music, and I suppose “bird watching” is also based on their often-beautiful markings and their great diversity. No one ever claims to have gone “squirrel watching.”
In my own life, the wildest array of birdlife I’ve ever experienced in one place was in the Argentine Patagonia, where I spent most of a year helping my cousin build a new house. During that year I saw condors, cormorants, egrets, herons, magellanic woodpeckers, various hawks, ibis, flamingos, and flocks of freaking parrots. I guess, after looking them up, the parrots were a kind of parakeet, which is in the parrot family, but for a guy from southwestern Michigan, flocks of either one seemed pretty exotic. In Michigan, parrots came in a cage and mostly one at a time. In Argentina, they’d come careening into the apple trees and the timbers of my cousin’s skeletal house, turning and banking like a school of fish.
The first time I saw an iridescent green and red team of parrots swarm the trees, I yelled to the two young men from the local village who were working for my cousin. They then yelled to each other with what I took to be shared excitement at the beautiful sight, but picked up rocks instead and started firing. I was surprised. I knew most of the villagers didn’t have a lot of money, and when I asked the guys if they were going after the birds for food, they frowned. They were just getting rid of pests that eat crops.
Also in great numbers were hummingbirds. They seemed at times to be everywhere, thrumming in impossible directions and worrying the lupines and violets. They seem the most delicate of all birds. One week, with my cousin and his wife gone to Chile, a hummingbird got into the old house and was frantically ramming the windows to get out. I was sure it would crush itself and so I grabbed a couple cushions from somewhere and began awkwardly trying to insert the cushions between the hummingbird and the windows.
I had been left at the house with a plumber, a big, red-nosed bear of a man named Guillermo who usually worked in nothing but a pair of ill-fitting white briefs. Guillermo lived an hour away, didn’t speak a word of English, loved opera and the Beatles (which he pronounced “Bee-attles”), and would stay for about a week when there was a decent-sized job to do. Guillermo and I were digging a septic system for the new house. He had hands like bricks. He was also immensely cheerful and asked me to play the guitar for him whenever there was a quiet moment, after which he would always tell me it was beautiful. Because my Spanish wasn’t very advanced, he enjoyed telling me the Spanish word for everything. I liked him, but resented his being there when I could’ve had a few days to myself, and the constant Spanish lessons wore on me, even though I needed them.
While I panicked with the cushions and failed to help the hummingbird, Guillermo waddled in the door, his huge body nearly naked, and looked amused. The big plumber walked right up to the hummingbird and cupped it off the window. He held the bird gently in his hands and said the lovely Spanish word for hummingbird: picaflor. Flower picker.
Guillermo looked at me and then looked out the window where the bird should’ve been. He walked it to the door and kissed the hummingbird on the head. “Picaflor,” he said again, a poetic word if ever there was one, and let it go.
In Gay Degani’s brilliant flash nonfiction piece, “Appendages,” parrots invade Los Angeles, migrating birds guide biologists, and even the cars have wings. The piece, itself a collection of curiously bound limbs, navigates territory from da Vinci to Back to the Future in short rhapsodic bursts. Degani holds her threads together in unexpected and convincing fashion.
“Speculating on the meaning of birdsong,” a poem by Kate Lutzner, juxtaposes the seeming monstrosity of our long-developed feelings and desires with the “small ability” of a sparrow, our capacity to give with our inability to connect. The poem functions as a kind of dialectic that reaches a satisfying conclusion, but one of its own mysterious language.
Jodi Paloni’s “Rose, 1937” tells the story of the narrator’s young love, great loss, and survival. Paloni writes in a wry, authentic voice and handles the loss of Rose’s young daughter, Phoebe, with ruthless delicacy. “Rose, 1937” is an excerpt from a novel in shorts on which Paloni is currently working, and which promises great things.
Photo by Rick Abraham