10 May 2008
by Tyler Chadwick
I wish I knew the names
of all these birds: I’m sure that’s a sparrow,
wings wound tight against the wind,
dropping to the tip of a cypress
before re-mounting the sky; and
two more there, circling the birdfeeder,
vying for seed. And there, a robin, breast flared
even at this hour,
sifting the xeriscape for a meal,
prouding its head to swallow, then
vanishing down a nearby bluff.
And there, scrambling from beneath
a tuft of backyard sage, what must be a mourning dove
throws dust and air at my presence. And yesterday,
as we came into town, I’m sure it was a raven
that arced across the road, tilting its wings
against the updraft from our car
to gather sky around its violet-
blue gloss. But that brooding coo,
too long and low
for the dove, covering the crickets’ trill,
charming light from its clay vessel €”
did Adam, at first,
even really know that name?
Originally published in Irreantum 9.2 (2007)/10.1 (2008): 206-7.
Tyler’s personal blog: Chasing the Long White Cloud.
9 thoughts on “Watching the Sunrise in St. George, Utah”
Ah. Nicely ended.
I like the ending, too—the idea of one meeting, even in just the hearing of it, the cooing voice of the Unnamed.
But there’s something about the uncertainty of naming showing throughout the poem that I like, too. Sometimes, “raven” doesn’t seem right, and I wonder, What do they call themselves?
The People! Of course. They must.
Your comments made me think of Ursula Le Guin’s “She Unnames Them”, which, of course, speaks to the uncertainty of naming. I especially like what she says about the names of cats:
The reason I wonder is because I had once a Siberian husky who clearly thought of herself as The Person.
I suspect very deeply that many species harbor “little lower than the angels” identities and attitudes.
Ah yes, Tyler—cats. The critters who hold inalienable their right to walk on and lay down on you, whether or not you’ve invited them or given permission.
Regarding the uncertainty of naming in your poem—does this show something of your shuffling to find some relation with these birds, or a stance to take in meeting them? Is the coyness of your certainty a set-up for the final lines? Both? Neither?
Where I am now in my life, I’m coming close to using names (for animals, but also sometimes for people) only as a matter of slight convenience. There seems to be something else that happens between people and between people and animals that seems a form of identification but nevertheless maintains an aura of namelessness, perhaps because it seems to be constantly in flux.
Your poem calls these thoughts to mind. Fun!
I think the uncertainty of naming as presented here does reflect my attempts to find some relation with these birds, especially since our time together was so fleeting that I’m not really sure if I got the names right (except with the robin, who stuck around a bit longer and who even looked at me a few times as I sat on the front step of the house, stretching after an early run). And I scrambled for a time trying to figure out what bird that “brooding coo” came from. I’m fairly certain it wasn’t the mourning dove, but whoever it was, it did have a significant effect on the final lines, which kind of sprang from the vessel of language as I worked these words into their present state a few days later.
The challenge and problem with names and language has been on my mind a lot more lately, especially as I become more invested in my own creative attempts and I try to find innovative ways to use words to exert some influence for good on the world. I was even watching Brian Regan’s latest routine, The Epitome of Hyperbole, the other day and couldn’t help but think about why the manipulation of language can be so funny and how this can draw us together in communities, even if just for a short time. I even think that sometimes my thinking is leading me further from the rhetorical pretensions of academia and more and more into communion with everyday language and its communal use.
But that doesn’t sound like a great way to get tenure, now does it? 😉
It’s hard to get a fix on birds, for the reason you mention—encounters can be so fleeting. What I’m discovering is that you need to hang around in their territories for a while, then they begin to become familiar with you and you with them.
The other day, I sat at one of my perches in a nearby canyon and a pair of canyon wrens came in close, hunting through the stones. Mostly, I’ve heard the wrens from a distance, and while I hardly have the ear to distinguish one wren’s notes from another’s, because of their territorial nature, I can better guess that the wren calls I hear in that area are made by one or the other of those two wrens.
This same canyon supports an impressive array of golden eagles. I see many starting this time of year. My first experience with an eagle in that canyon was rather dramatic. I’d hiked in, hearing this shrill barking noise I thought might be some kind of fox. Eventually, I heard the bird notes in the call and supposed only a eagle could make that much noise. I couldn’t see it, though; it sat up in the rocks on the opposite side of the canyon. Eventually, it took to the air, flying across canyon and at an angle away from me. This being the first golden eagle I’d ever seen around there, I stared. Darned if the bird didn’t catch my eye. It turned and flew in my direction, dipping low. At about fifty feet directly above me, it turned four or five tight circles, looking down. Then, it flapped back to the course it had been following before it had turned to satisfy its curiosity and flew out of the canyon directly.
Saying, “I watched wrens” or “That was an eagle” seems woefully inadequate. There ought to be names or phrases that describe these kinds of encounters where something happens to you, and maybe to the bird.
The world’s in need of good language. In spite of all of it that’s out there, people are still starved for the good stuff.
The trick: Speak as many kinds of English as you can learn, but keep working for that communion with everyday language. Everyday language can, of course, be quite beautiful and as capable as transformation as any of the “higher” phrase-turning, perhaps more capable than some.