THE DAY’S ON FIRE: It’s for the Birds

In a dark time, the eye begins to see, I meet my shadow

in the deepening shade; I hear my echo in the echoing wood—A lord of nature weeping to a tree. I live between the heron and the wren, beasts of the hill and serpents of the den. What’s madness but nobility of the soul at odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire! I know the purity of despair, my shadow pinned against a sweating wall. That place among the rocks—is it a cave, or winding path? The edge is what I have. A steam storm of correspondences! A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon, and in broad day the midnight come again! A man goes far to find out what he is—death of the self in a long, tearless night, all natural shapes blazing unnatural light. Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire. My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly, keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I? A fallen man, I climb out of my fear. The mind enters itself, and God the mind, and one is One, free in the tearing wind.

That’s Theodore Roethke, and this is Professor Barbara Mossberg, Dr. B, welcoming you to our Poetry Slow Down, with Producer Zappa Johns on California’s Central Coast, and I began this with you nine time zones away on the Swedish archipelago,  making the morning last with our show (if the shoe fits, hear it!), the news you need, the news you heed, the news “without which men die miserably every day” (says William Carlos Williams, who as a physician would know). Birds have something profoundly, I think, to do with this work to break open the morning in each of us, and so our show today is going to the birds . . .

I end up spending the morning reading about birds and  reflecting on the human mind, that sees the world in such detail, with such attention, and giving to what is out there such respect and affection—and I don’t know my birds, the birds I know are learned from literature, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Poe’s “The Raven,” Yeats’ swans and falcons, Coleridge’s albatross, Dickinson’s robin and hummingbird (a poem which almost derailed my career in literature), and I try to express herons and cranes in my poetry; and songs—because of Leonard Cohen’s bird on the wire, I SEE birds on the wire, and think of him, Anne Murray’s snowbird, “fly-eye-eye-away, away with you,” and Bob Marley’s, Don’t Worry About a Thing, his lines “woke up this morning, smiled at the rising sun, three little birds sat on my doorstep singing, a song that’s pure and true, this is my message to you-ou-ou-ou.” So I find myself looking for birds, noticing birds, letting them into my consciousness in a new way, because of songs and poems about birds. What is it about poetry that does this?

The world becomes more real to me through poetry; I become more sighted; open-eyed. And I realize, to see birds, to notice them, you um . . . can’t be going too fast . . . you have to slow down, be at essential standing speed, and even that’s too fast, you have to be sitting or lying, and still, your mind has to be at rest, and open, and if you are still, then you can see the motion of the world, the birds . . . some of our most ancient companions on earth . . . but Professor Mossberg, I, like, work in an office, in a city, where am I going to be sitting and lying and looking at birds? Except pigeons, on the plaza, where we sit eating from the carts . . . I live in an apartment, where am I seeing birds? And Christer wants to see birds in Oregon, so he puts up a bird feeder to bring them close, and what happens? You already know, you already are saying, seven pumper, no, no seven pumpers! But yes, squirrels, and sometimes a bold jay, but mostly, squirrels. So I realize that to see birds is necessarily to be in a natural universe of trees and plants and flowers but even so, it is to be in such a way that we can really see them.

Because I am thinking now of something else one of our listeners sent me, a story about crows in the city. So there are city birds. But one sure way to notice birds, and have them in our life, out our window, is in poetry, because poets are Whitmanly [my spell check corrects this as “Whit manly”] lying and loafing and taking their ease, Thoreau on his four hour walks, Muir on his ten hour walks covering one mile, Mary Oliver taking off the day (wouldn’t you—what are you going to do with your “one wild and precious life?”), Dickinson perched at her second story window, eyes open, pen and notebook in hand, day in and day out, pondering “this tremendous scene, this whole experiment in green, as if it were HER own” –they are our observers, our citizen scientists at the watch, and so let’s hear some of the poems about birds, and you know what, The Poetry Slow Down, it turns out, when you think of it, that birds are a major topic of poetry—name your favorite poet and there’s a bird. So we’ll hear a few: and in the process, we’ll explore what birds mean to us in our journey of learning about being human, the gift of consciousness of being alive on earth in this form, with these brains, our purpose here . . . what can we learn, from how some poet somewhere looks up at the sky, or at a bush, or grass, and sees something with eyes, two feet, but also, wings, who can walk and hop on ground, like us, and then at the drop of a hat, lift off, soar.

Imagining this, I thought of a word for the community of listeners of The Poetry Slow Down: a flight. We join each other in the air, through air waves, ricocheted from space, sonically we are connected by vibrations, our ear canals, our brain pathways, as birds, and as birds communicate and navigate with celestial processes. . . it’s not a flock, exactly, we’re all over the place, we are in Texas, and New Jersey, and Manhattan, and Princeton, and Westwood, and Carmel Valley, and Pacific Grove, and Estes Park, and Oregon and Alaska and England and Poland and Australia and Vermont and Santa Cruz and Washington, D.C., we’re teenagers, we’re retired, we’re professional poets, we’re teachers, we’re physicians and scientists, we’re caregivers, we’re singers, we’re grandmas, we ride motorcycles, we pilot planes, we practice law and yoga and we live on the 20thfloor, we live on a cattle ranch, but we are all here at this moment, joined physically and literally in our brains.  . . . Well, I will think of this metaphor, and you think too. The physics of our community—you know how in quantum theory, experiments with matter, when you get the nano level, and you split the smallest entity we can imagine, and you take one half of it and take it to Paris—that’s the side I want to be on, you say, and I’m with you there—and the other you have in Los Angeles, and you poke the one in LA, and set it quivering, and at the same instant, even on different time zones, that other part in Paris is carrying on identically as if it too were poked. Well that’s us, at The Poetry Slow Down, right here and now, we are all connected by listening to a poet who perhaps wrote down these lines hundreds of years ago, in some garden, and what are those years, what are those miles, nothing, it is all here in the now, which dwells in our right brain, where “all is groovy”—literally. I wasthinking of us as a stand, as we call birches, that are trees above ground but all connected in our root systems underground, one organic entity arising from earth, or, in this sense, an “understand” of listening community, or, an “under-standing,” an understandingof listeners. This expresses the organic wholeness of my sense of our community, bonded by the sound of the word, the thinking about poetry, our common “ground.” But the “flight” idea in its relation to birds and what poetry does to us, how it takes our mind and lifts off to places we can never get to on our feet, this soaring brain travel–Dickinson said, “the brain is wider than the sky”—well, I will keep thinking, and you too.

So the poems we will feature on noticing birds, our fellow creatures who inspire us, and whom I now realize that to see and know r requires botany, biology, art (I am dazzled by the vocabulary required and flamboyantly displayed in the discussion of bird characteristics), physics, and who knows what else. O, yes, of course: poetry. Poetry opens us to see, so here’s starters for our eye-opening line up: Teyhimba Jess

gets us into the mood with things flying around suspended like a Chagall painting in “What the Wind, Rain, and Thunder Said to Tom . . . .” We’ll consider the most famous bird in poetry. Emily Dickinson’s hope, the thing with feathers, or Poe’s raven? We will hear Dickinson’s robin, and John Muir’s Water-Ousel (water thrush), and Mary Oliver’s thrush in “Such Singing in the Wild Branches.” There is Shelley’s ode to the skylark, Keats’ to a nightingale, James Wright’s chicken hawk seen from his hammock, William Carlos Williams’ white chickens on which so much depends, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ falcon, his “bright wings,” Yeats’ falcon and swan, Wallace Stevens’ 13 ways of looking at a blackbird, and Ted Hughes’ crows in “Crow Blacker Than Ever,”

and then we’ll look at contemporary poets, and classic poets, and the Sphinx, and role of birds as prophecy, birds in our language (Peter Pan: I’ve got to crow!). I’ll share my poems on cranes and herons, which I don’t start out to write about, I start out trying to write a love poem to my husband, and somehow it always ends up about these birds, that is where love takes us. Flights . . . .

And this is where hearing from you takes me, the mind’s flights . . .so write me at, or, and let me know how and when you listen, and Producer Zappa Johns and I will be on the case to make sure we are hear for you, slowing down for the news without which men die miserably every day, but not you, not us, O poetry slow down flight, thanking you, dear listener, in my mind and heart this June morning.

Coming up:

Embrace the complexity and drama of your life. That is certainly what we find when we look within—yes, chaos—as well as gifts, talents, to fulfil the purpose we are blessed with. But what is that purpose?

So that’s what we’re going to get at next week with poetry, dear listener right hear, hear hear!—why poetry? What’s the connection with poetry and a sense of our life’s purpose? Perhaps—I’m thinking out loud here—the kind of person who takes the time to struggle to write down one’s thoughts about how we see this world, who feels called by consciousness to do something about what we see, feel, hear, think, has some purpose—to tell us. It seems that we who read poetry, who hear poetry, imagined or real, are the solution: if we can hear this, then that poet’s purpose is served. The poet doesn’t know for sure that someone will see or hear their lines—ever—but the imagined possibility drives one to set down one’s thoughts, to work it out in language art, to say it just so . . . and perhaps tht gives poets a poetic leg up on the wisdom of purpose. What did the good Rumi say?

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.

God’s purpose for man is to acquire a seeing eye and an understanding heart.

But the truth is it’s hard to glean meaning—isn’t that the biggest paradox of being human? T.S. Eliot said we had the experience but missed the meaning. What? How can that be? It’s very humbling and comic, not to know the meaning of what we ourselves personally experience. Does this mean meaning is extrinsic to reality, that we can live without it? Without purpose? As in, to mean, to intend, is to have a purpose . . . Billy Collins as a poet makes fun of us in this way, in his poem “Introduction to Poetry. “We beat  and torture poetry to extract its meaning.

And yet to find our purpose may be hard work but perhaps we can’t find it unless we lighten up, take a lighter approach, don’t bludgeon it, as Collins says. I don’t know! Mary Oliver is so clear about her purpose, being in a summer garden, you all know this poem by heart, I know, “The Summer Day.” :

This has to be one of the most famous and beloved poems of our time. Why, what is here? Is it the ancient Job—wisdom, calling out the Creator? But what she’s asking of us is our sense of purpose—how we are to act intentionally with our time and energy and spirit—as Thoreau said, he went to the woods to live deliberately, and not find at the end of his life he hasn’t lived at all. His purpose that is, is to live with purpose, and that without such purpose, it isn’t life at all. For him, the woods is whatever place he can be mindful of purpose, the equivalent of Oliver’s grass in which she is lying. So we’ll tramp around some with this question, and hear from Walt Whitman, and contemporary poets. This is the news we need.

THANK YOU, Producer Zappa Johns, and you, dear listener, our flight: it is our purpose to serve you well, breaking morning out of darkness, and making it last: I’m your host, Professor Barbara Mossberg.

© Barbara Mossberg 2018

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