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." 


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

    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!

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

    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.