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Naturalist's Library: Bright Wings

Earlier this winter, I received a copy of a new anthology of bird verse called Bright Wings: an Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds.

Published by Columbia University Press, the book is edited by former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins and features the paintings of well-known illustrator David Sibley.  The compact, duodecimo volume (about 7 1/2 by 5 3/4 inches) weighs in at 268 pages, packing a lot of poetry into a small package.  The book contains 113 poems, selected by Collins and arranged in taxonomic order by bird subject, along with 58 David Sibley plates.

Collins has long been one of my favorites, because his work is incredibly accessible and imaginative without sacrificing depth, nuance, and technical proficiency.  My copies of Sailing Alone Around the Room (2001) and Nine Horses (2002) are especially well-worn.  But what surprised me when I heard about Bright Wings was that as much as I enjoy reading Billy Collins, I’ve never thought of him as a nature poet.  When Collins’s poems deal with nature, they often do so through an oddly-shaped keyhole of imagination.  It is the poet’s creation, rather than the original external image, that is most memorable in his work.  Rather than channel nature in all its force with the mystical lyricism of a Mary Oliver, he chooses the seemingly ordinary moment or scene and sends it spinning off headlong into an internal litany of thought and image that, more often than not, somehow finds a way to settle down into the profound.  So it was with great curiosity that I opened Bright Wings to find out how this unique poet approached the task of compiling a book of bird poems.  My hope was that this collection would be much more than the usual trotting out of “classic” avian verse.

In the book’s introduction, Collins lives up to expectations by summarily bashing the “school of wistfulness” that so aptly describes much Romantic bird poetry of the 19th century.  “[A] reader of nineteenth-century poetry,” he writes, “might get the impression that poets are incapable of seeing a creature with wings without yelling ‘Hark!'”  In the name of a fresh approach,  Collins disclaims his omission of “many of the obvious choices” with “no editorial regrets”.  This will be a collection, the editor assures us, that will shine light on some relatively unknown poets, and will lean toward the contemporary, toward the undercutting of tired conventions, away from the sentimental wistfulness of the Romantics.  In support of his point, the only poem included in its entirety in the introduction is “The Swan at Edgewater Park”, a poem by Ruth Schwartz in which the beauty of a swan that inhabits filthy urban waters is compared to that of a young mother with a dead-end job and a dysfunctional relationship.  It’s not often that swans and used condoms are invoked in the same image.

But this book is no mere showcase of counter-convention.  Some standards are included, like Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”, Keats’s “Song”, a couple of selections from Dickinson, and Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”.  Chaucer, Whitman, Wordsworth, Tennyson, the Brownings, Emerson, and Thoreau are all represented by single selections.  While these add context, contemporary poets supply the real meat of the anthology.  Mark Jarman has three poems included here, all of which I enjoy because they manage to be very good poems without sacrificing accessibility or ornithological accuracy.  “Chimney Swifts” is my favorite: “To them, there are two worlds – / The soot-thick shaft and the silky bowl of sky.”  For astuteness of observation, John Updike’s “Seagulls” stands out to me: “A gull, up close, / looks surprisingly stuffed. / His fluffy chest seems filled / with an inexpensive taxidermist’s material / rather lumpily inserted.”  There are also some lesser-known gems to be found here.  “The Cardinal” by Henry Carlile is spare and efficient, but miraculously just-right for anyone who knows the bird: “He shocks us when he flies / like a red verb over the snow.”

The plates are watercolors, found on left-hand pages facing a corresponding poem.  One annoyance for the seasoned naturalist is that the bird illustrated in the facing plate does not always match the bird being described in the poem.  For instance, Elizabeth Bishop’s fine poem “The Sandpiper” is clearly based upon a Sanderling, a denizen of ocean beaches.  The plate used is a Buff-breasted Sandpiper, which prefers turf farms and plowed fields in migration, and would never be found on a beach!  In most cases the mismatch is pointed out in the plate caption with a statement such as “The Great-crested Flycatcher in the poem is a more modest-looking bird than this spectacular Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.”  For those readers not familiar with the birds, this may not be a problem, but for me, the mismatched plates are a bit of a distraction from my mental image of the poem.  Still, the paintings are mostly compelling, and Sibley fans will enjoy a certain looseness of form in these watercolors, freed as they are from the strictures of painstaking field mark illustration that Sibley’s field guide plates are known for.  While a small handful of the illustrations (American Coot, Brown Pelican, and Ring-necked Pheasant) miss the mark, many more are excellent (Turkey Vulture, Lesser Yellowlegs, Cliff Swallow, Cedar Waxwing, to name just a few).

The book’s final poem, “Rara Avis” by southern California poet Brendan Constantine, is included as a sort of coda of counter-convention, and can only be described as bizarre.  Constantine is an acclaimed “guerilla poet” and this poem derisively describes a series of reported behaviors of “the birdwatchers” upon being interviewed: “When interviewed, the bird watchers ate crow. / When interviewed the bird watchers refused / to discuss themselves, preferring to debate / recent observations of the Dope Warbler, / the Spoon Tailed Ninny, the Royal Bavarian / Snack Rail…”  It gets worse.  “When interviewed, the bird watchers turned / on each other.  It was ugly, like a stoning.”  After 39 lines of increasingly unlikely and deranged behaviors on the part of the bird watchers, line 40 reads simply, “The birds could not be reached for comment.”  Other than offending birders, I’m still not sure I get what Constantine is going for here, but I think I see why Collins chose to include the poem.  It’s a wry and forceful reminder that despite the thousands of words we spend describing them, classifying them, longing to be like them, and generally getting worked up over them, we sometimes forget that the birds themselves are, after all, the story.  And they aren’t talking.

With Bright Wings, Collins hits his mark, bringing us a fresh and thought-provoking anthology.  Many of the included poems use the avian moment to pick a lock on something uniquely human, and once that door is opened, the poem slips readily over the threshold.  This makes the anthology only partly a celebration of birds for what they are, and partly a vehicle for introspection for us, through so many avian mirrors.  There are many fine poems here, and the book should earn a space on the shelf of any naturalist with an abiding interest in literature.  If that naturalist is a closet poetry connoisseur, so much the better!

Bright Wings is available from Columbia University Press.

Also, you may want to swing by The Well-read Naturalist for John Riutta’s take on the book, or check out Corey’s review at 10,000 Birds.

Title: Bright Wings: an Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds
Editor: Billy Collins
Illustrator:David Allen Sibley
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Date of publication: November, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-231-15084-2

Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher.

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