An Illustrated Anthology of
Poems about Birds
Billy Collins, Editor
(Columbia University Press)
In his introduction Collins tells us that he is going to leave out Yeats' wild swans and Keat's nightingale and Poe's tedious "nevermore." But he has chosen to include our favorite mad John Clare (without, alas, our favorite line, "the swallow swimming by.")
That big nature-freak bore Gary Snyder makes the cut, unfortunately, as does Elizabeth Bishop's cryptic sandpiper who is, she tells us, "a student of Blake." William or Lively?
Emily Dickinson appears more than once, at first with an especially strange if tiny bird:
I could not bear the Bees should come,
I wished they'd stayed away
In those dim countries where they go
What word had they, for me?
Collins has does his homework, ponying up those who should never be forgotten nor hidden away in an English Lit syllabus: Chaucer, Wallace Stevens, Walter de la Mare, Herrick, and Robert Browning with his sigh: "Oh to be in England / Now that April's there."
Thoreau makes a couple of visits although he's better as a philosopher than a poet, viz., bluebirds "over the blacksmith's shop in a jiff / Did they come warbling to me."
Collins is suitably humble, offering up two by Hardy (yes!), three of Mark Jarman (who he?), but merely one --- a nice one --- for himself, with a sparrow trapped in his house, "in the spiky branches / of our decorated tree,"
among the metallic angels, ceramic apples, stars of yarn
its eyes open, like mine...
Collins' affable introduction includes a poem about a raffish swan by Ruth Schwartz. It's classic and should be better known (if it isn't already).
One of the longest poems here is by another unknown, Dorianne Laux, supposedly about the ravens of Alaska, but with honorable mention of the grizzlies, the "club-footed moose," and the bald eagle, who is able to "swim with massive / butterfly strokes through / the great glacial lakes of Alaska."
Unfortunately Collins is a bit too charitable with some of the hoary scribblers of yore, giving unnecessary space to that rotter Robert Penn Warren whom Karl Shapiro (normally mum about such things, detested --- not personally, mind you: but as a poet). We will never forget Warren's ridiculous "Homage to Emerson," with the infamous soda-pop image:
My heart ... is as abstract as an empty
Coca-Cola bottle. It
whistles with speed...
And here is Warren, on Redwing Blackbirds,
On sedge, winter-bit but erect, on old cattails, they swing,
throats throb, your field glasses say, as they cling and sing ... that rusty, gut-grabbing cry
The globe grinds on, proceeds with the business of Aprils and men
Next year will redwings see me, or I them, again then?
Try saying "will redwings see me or I them again then" three times quickly. Without stumbling. Or spitting up.
The winners in Bright Wings? Sparrows (10), swallows (9), owls(8), blackbirds (6) --- but my beloved linnets (0).--- A. W. Allworthy