There is no easy way to describe birds though poets have tried throughout human history. The essential reason that birds cannot be described is that we see them always as metaphors, which is a problem if what you want is the art of the bird, the essence of birdness. So we write of the bird as spirit. Even our tribal ancestors did so. A famous Ojibway poem describes feeling sorry for oneself—until the narrator announces that all the while he is being carried across the sky on great wings. We understand the bird as a symbolic coefficient of mind and wish. But Lord help you if you try to put one in words.
I was in mind of this early today when walking with my guide dog Nira, and owing to recent eye surgeries, I was able to discern a very large, startled goose corkscrew into the air from its hiding place beneath a foot bridge. All feathers and ligatures, muscle memory and atavistic spasms it was. The bird was alive and ungainly and improbable and offered the only kind of beauty I am attracted to. And of course the bird had been asleep and then it was alive like a sentient bee hive. And because I was walking and properly meditative I saw that my blindness and the bird’s unlikeliness as a figure for poetry were in fact the same thing. Poets can only write about the occasion of the bird. Even good poets must imagine a mise en scene wherein the bird is oddly remarkable, which is to say that they don’t write about the birds at all. Here is a poem by Wendell Berry that illustrates what I’m observing:
A sparrow is
His hunger organized.
Filled, he flies
Before he knows he’s going to.
And he dies by the same movement: filled
With himself, he goes
by the eye-quick
reflex of his flesh
out of sight,
leaving his perfect
absence without a thought.
Aha! You see my point of course. Birds are no more describable than the other imponderables which are instinctual, mysterious, accidental, risky, beyond the scope of will. In point of fact Wendell Berry’s terrific little poem about the sparrow is an accurate narrative of disabling dislocations—“eye quick”; “reflex of his flesh”; inchoate as vanishing itself.
All this because of a goose under a bridge, early morning in Iowa City.
Meantime one can only narrate disabilities by what they are as glimpses, like shadows flying through the trees.