THE DAY’S ON FIRE: It’s for the Birds

Theodore Roethke, In a Dark Time:

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’m nine time zones away on the Swedish archipelago, and we’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 “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 next show, we’re going to the birds . . . here’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 “it”—is it an idea, a thought, a realization, brought by an external something—the “bird of winter”—

Is the speaker talking to someone, addressed or thought of as “dear”,

Or is it an address to the bird, an apostrophe, as in dear bird of winter,

And is what makes it 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.  It’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 “ear” sound, eee irrr err, err; and tones can be color (the color is slate), or musical, but listen to the lines, tones of slate surprise, all those esses, es, sssel, sssur. .  .ize. . .

Then the flittinglike the slatesound, flitting, fallen, and wrapped up with leaves, which brings together the “ear” cluster and the ssssss and somehow joins with surprise:leaves, surprise, the eeeeer-and zzzzzz, like, leaves zzzzzz . . . . .

I am left with two words jumping out at me, pondering how they belong: the dear, strung out there, floating, almost like out the window, the view, where one’s eyes go, as one is inside—“just now”–dearjust hangs out there, and so does the word surprisewhich the left brain white-coated clip-board carrying brow furrowed reader tries grammatically to order, what is that word 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 “just now,” with the mind (my mind) worrying the words dearand surprise,like fingered prayer beads, and these seem like good words to keep in mind, going about our day, dear and surprise.

Meanwhile I don’t know what Juncomeans, and the dictionary doesn’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 affection—calling this bird “genial,” what a friendly mind is watching birds, and even having that conception, to think in this way, 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, 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.

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, and that may be, MAY be, MAY—I’m just sayin, I’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 they’ve dropped on the street for cars to drive over, we could call them car-nutcrackers, so they don’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 “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, dearsof The Poetry Slow Down, it turns out, when you think of it, surprise, 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 was thinking 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:

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 “bright wings”

W.B. Yeats, his falcon, his swan

Then, Wallace Stevens’ birds, 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, 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, let’s get out there and go a-Mayin, I’m just sayin, I’m Professor Barbara Mossberg, and we’ll fly next week: send me your favorite bird poem at

© Barbara Mossberg 2018

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