Theodore Roethke, In a Dark Time:
In a dark time, the eye begins to see, I meet my shadowÂ in the deepening shade; I hear my echo in the echoing woodâ€”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. Whatâ€™s madness but nobility of the soul at odds with circumstance? The dayâ€™s on fire! I know the purity of despair, my shadow pinned against a sweating wall. That place among the rocksâ€”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 theÂ midnightÂ come again! A man goes far to find out what he isâ€”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.
Thatâ€™s Theodore Roethke, and this is Professor Barbara Mossberg, Dr. B, welcoming you to our Poetry Slow Down, with Producer Zappa Johns on Californiaâ€™s Central Coast, and Iâ€™m nine time zones away on the Swedish archipelago, and weâ€™re intent on making the morning last with our show (if the shoe fits, hear it!), the news you need, the news you heed, the news â€œwithout which men die miserably every dayâ€ (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 soÂ our next show, weâ€™re going to the birds . . . hereâ€™s how it started, you may remember this from years ago, our pilot philosopher listener poet Chuck Tripi sent this poem to me, and I opened up my email, in my hurried day, slowed down, to read this:
it comes to join me
just now, out my window, dear
the bird of winter
in its tones of slate surprise
flitting on the fallen leaves
My question first was, what is the â€œitâ€â€”is it an idea, a thought, a realization, brought by an external somethingâ€”the â€œbird of winterâ€â€”
Is the speaker talking to someone, addressed or thought of as â€œdearâ€,
Or is it an address to the bird, an apostrophe, as in dear bird of winter,
And is what makes itÂ dear,is tones of slate,
Is surprise a modifier of slate, like, a surprising tone of
slate? Or is the adjective slate, a slate surprise, what is that? Perhaps the slate surprise is the bird, the bird is surprise, this slate-colored bird, flitting on the fallen leaves. Except it says, tones of slate surprise.Â Â Itâ€™s the tones that surprise. Or, could it be read, the bird of winter in its tones of slate, surprise [as a verb], flitting on the fallen leaves.
The sound of it plays off, me, dear, bird, winter, this â€œearâ€ sound, eee irrr err, err; and tones can be color (the color is slate), or musical, but listen to the lines,Â tones of slate surprise, all those esses, es, sssel, sssur. .Â Â .ize. . .
Then theÂ flittinglike theÂ slatesound, flitting, fallen, and wrapped up with leaves, which brings together the â€œearâ€ cluster and the ssssss and somehow joins withÂ surprise:leaves, surprise, the eeeeer-and zzzzzz, like, leaves zzzzzz . . . . .
I am left with two words jumping out at me, pondering how they belong: theÂ dear, strung out there, floating, almost like out the window, the view, where oneâ€™s eyes go, as one is insideâ€”â€œjust nowâ€–dearjust hangs out there, and so does the wordÂ surprisewhich the left brain white-coated clip-board carrying brow furrowed reader tries grammatically to order, what is that wordÂ surprisedoing at the end of the line, is it a noun or a verb, does it belong to slate and if so how could it, or is it referring to what follows, the sound of a bird in the leaves (and if so is the window open, to hear this?).
So I am left with an image of a sensibility aware of what is going on outside the window on a winter day, at that exact moment of â€œjust now,â€ with the mind (my mind) worrying the wordsÂ dearandÂ surprise,like fingered prayer beads, and these seem like good words to keep in mind, going about our day,Â dearÂ andÂ surprise.
Meanwhile I donâ€™t know whatÂ Juncomeans, and the dictionary doesnâ€™t help, but when I Google it, of course it is a dark-eyed winter bird, and I end up spending the morning reading about the Junco, 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 affectionâ€”calling this bird â€œgenial,â€ what a friendly mind is watching birds, and even having that conception, to think in this way, and I donâ€™t know my birds, the birds I know are learned from literature, Nabokovâ€™sÂ Pale Fire, Poeâ€™s â€œThe Raven,â€ Yeatsâ€™ swans and falcons, Coleridgeâ€™s albatross, and I try to express herons and cranes in my poetry, and songsâ€”because of Leonard Cohenâ€™s bird on the wire, I SEE birds on the wire, and think of him, Anne Murrayâ€™s snowbird, â€œfly-eye-eye-away, away with you,â€ and Bob Marleyâ€™s, Donâ€™t Worry About a Thing, his lines â€œwoke up this morning, smiled at the rising sun, three little birds sat on my doorstep singing, a song thatâ€™s pure and true, this is my message to you-ou-ou-ou.â€ 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.
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 . . . canâ€™t be going too fast . . . you have to slow down, be at essential standing speed, and even thatâ€™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, and that may be, MAY be, MAYâ€”Iâ€™m just sayin, Iâ€™m just playin, in Poetry!
Because I am thinking now of something else one of our listeners sent me, a story about crows in the city. Crows are so smart they have figured out how to wait for a light to change before they fly down to pick up the nuts theyâ€™ve dropped on the street for cars to drive over, we could call them car-nutcrackers, so they donâ€™t get run over themselves. 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 â€œWhit manlyâ€] 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 (wouldnâ€™t youâ€”what are you going to do with your â€œone wild and precious life?â€), Dickinson perched at her second story window, eyes open, pen and notebook in hand, day in and day out, pondering â€œthis tremendous scene, this whole experiment in green, as if it were HER ownâ€ –they are our observers, our citizen scientists at the watch, and so letâ€™s hear some of the poems about birds, and you know what,Â dearsofÂ The Poetry Slow Down, it turns out, when you think of it,Â surprise, that birds are a major topic of poetryâ€”name your favorite poet and thereâ€™s a bird. So weâ€™ll hear a few: and in the process, weâ€™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 ofÂ The Poetry Slow Down: aÂ 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. . . itâ€™s not aÂ flock, exactly, weâ€™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., weâ€™re teenagers, weâ€™re retired, weâ€™re professional poets, weâ€™re teachers, weâ€™re physicians and scientists, weâ€™re caregivers, weâ€™re singers, weâ€™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.Â Â . . . Well, I will think of this metaphor, and you think too. The physics of our communityâ€”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 Parisâ€”thatâ€™s the side I want to be on, you say, and Iâ€™m with you thereâ€”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 thatâ€™s us, atÂ 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 â€œall is groovyâ€â€”literally. IÂ wasÂ thinking of us as aÂ 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 â€œunderstandâ€ of listening community, or, an â€œunder-standing,â€ anÂ 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 â€œground.â€ But the â€œflightâ€ 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, â€œthe brain is wider than the skyâ€â€”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 hereâ€™s starters for our eye-opening line up:
Poe, his raven
T.S. Eliot, birds from selected poems
Emily Dickinson, birds selected poems
John Muir, his water ouzel
Mary Oliver, two from American Primitive, and her snow geese poems
Shelley, his ode to the skylark
Keats, his ode to a nightengale
James Wright, his chicken hawk (Lying in a Hammock . . . )
William Carlos Williams, his white chickens
Gerard Manley Hopkins, his falcon, his â€œbright wingsâ€
W.B. Yeats, his falcon, his swan
Then, Wallace Stevensâ€™ birds, and then weâ€™ll look at contemporary poets, and classic poets, and the Sphinx, and role of birds as prophecy, birds in our language (Peter Pan: Iâ€™ve got to crow!). Iâ€™ll share my poems on cranes and herons, which I donâ€™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 mindâ€™s flights . . .so write me atÂ firstname.lastname@example.org, 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 May day, letâ€™s get out there and go a-Mayin, Iâ€™m just sayin, Iâ€™m Professor Barbara Mossberg, and weâ€™ll fly next week: send me your favorite bird poem atÂ Barbara.email@example.com.
Â©Â Barbara Mossberg 2018