Sunday, May 1, 2016

Poetry Sunday: Counting Birds

I featured a poem by Jim Harrison in early April on the occasion of his death, but at the time I was looking at his poetry, I came across this one as well. Since I am a birder and one who counts birds, of course it spoke to me.

Last week I was reading the "By the Book" feature in The New York Times book review section. It was an interview with Louise Erdrich, a favorite writer of mine, and one of the questions asked was about her favorite poem. She mentioned this one. 

Never one to ignore signs from the universe, I said to myself, "Yes, that's my poem of the week!" 

Counting Birds

by Jim Harrison (1990)

As a child, fresh out of the hospital 
with tape covering the left side
of my face, I began to count birds.
At age fifty the sum total is precise and astonishing, my only secret. 
Some men count women or cars
they've owned, their shirts --
long sleeved and short sleeved --
or shoes, but I have my birds,
excluding, of course, the extraordinary 
days: the twenty-one thousand
snow geese and sandhill cranes at 
Bosque del Apache, the sky blinded
by great frigate birds in the Pacific
off Anconcito, Ecuador; the twenty-one 
thousand pink flamingos an Ngorongoro Crater
in Tanzania; the vast flocks of sea birds
on the Seri coast of the Sea of Cortez
down in Sonora that left at nightfall, 
then reappearing, resuming 
their exact positions at dawn;
the one thousand cliff swallows nesting in the sand cliffs of Pyramid Point,
their small round burrows like eyes, 
really the souls of the Anasazi who flew 
here a thousand years ago
to wait the coming of the Manitou.


And then there were the usual, almost deadly
birds of the soul -- the crow with silver 
harness I rode one night as if she 
were a black, feathered angel.
the birds I became to escape unfortunate 
circumstances -- how the skin ached
as the feathers shot out toward the light;
the thousand birds the dogs helped 
me shoot to become a bird (grouse, woodcock,
duck, dove, snipe, pheasant, prairie chicken, etc.).


On my deathbed I'll write this secret 
number on a slip of paper and pass
it to my wife and two daughters.
It will be a hot evening in June
and they might be glancing out the window
at the thunderstorm's approach from the west.
Looking past their eyes and a dead fly
on the window screen I'll wonder
if there's a bird waiting for me in the onrushing clouds.
O birds, I'll sing to myself, you've carried
me along on this bloody voyage,
carry me now into that cloud 
into the marvel of this final night.


~~~

He was wrong, of course, about the time of his death - it wasn't a "hot evening in June." But I hope he got that final passage right and as he waited he could say, as he counted his last birds:

"O birds, I'll sing to myself, you've carried
me along on this bloody voyage,
carry me now into that cloud
into the marvel of this final night." 

6 comments:

  1. It's a little bit gloomy at the end, I think, but otherwise it fits birders perfectly, you included, Dorothy.

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    1. Actually, I can't imagine a better end than having birds carry us "into that cloud into the marvel of this final night." Any birder would agree, I'm sure!

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  2. Amazing! I wonder if he gave the secret number to his family. I just started reading Erdrich's new novel, LaRose.

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    1. I've got her new book on my list, but I still have some older ones that I haven't read, too. Lots of good reading ahead! I really like Harrison's poetry and I wasn't familiar with it until his recent death and I started researching it. So nice to make the acquaintance of a simpatico poet.

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