Review: "The Poet’s Guide To The Birds," Edited by Judith Kitchen and Ted Kooser

The Poets Guide To The Birds
Edited by Judith Kitchen and Ted Kooser
Anhinga Press, 2009

Although the forecast promised thundershowers a dozen people showed up for our first scheduled Central Park bird walk of 2009. One was a very good birder. The rest were beginners. I love leading beginners. To beginners everything is new and interesting. They come full of questions about the birds they have seen at their weekend homes or through their windows. They are thrilled to learn and remember the song of the White-throated sparrow, although they insist that it doesn’t sound anything like “oh Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody.” They aren’t jaded. They haven’t lost the ability to be delighted by common birds. Nevertheless, I find myself feeling a bit like a failure when I cannot rack up a big list, or put them on to something unusual like the Yellow-throated warbler that hung around the model boat pond for the ten days preceding our walk.

Beginners keep me grounded. They remind me that birding isn’t about listing, or seeing something rare, or evolutionary relationships – although all of those things are fun and add to the experience. The bigger part of birding is more intimate. The biggest part of birding is about the way we experience birds, the claims they have patented on our imaginations, and the joy of sharing the world with creatures which just happen to have wings.

A group of experts would have been off like a bunch of hunting dogs heading for the Ramble after the first “hello.” But my group seemed happy to begin our walk by listening to a poem by Holly J. Hughes called: March 6, 1890: Eugene Schiefflin Releases 80 Starlings In Central Park, in which the poet imagines the introduction of starlings to the new world.

At last he stops, lowers each cage, lifts each latch.
The starlings step out, blinking,
each clawed foot unscrolling into the snow.

Dazed from months aboard ship and carriage,
they linger near the cages, flex their wings,
a spatter of white on black

like puddingstone, lower their tails,
cock their heads, preen,
eyes bright like honey.

At 4:30 clouds cut away.
clear sky thickens into evening.
Still they stay close to their cages.

Finally, growing cold, he rushes at the birds,
scarecrowing his arms: Go, go, go.
At first one then another, and another,

until the whole murmuration lifts
and spirals, a spidery helix
against a darkening sky.

The poet, in recounting an event that I have come to regard as an act of ecoterrorism, reminds her readers of the romantic conceit which instigated the introduction of starlings to the new world. (Eugene Schiefflin brought the birds here because he wanted Central Park to have all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare.) The poem reminds me that Schiefflin, too, was a birder of sorts, in that birds took up residence in his imagination and lived there as a metaphor for an aesthetic and literary pure ground. The poet tells the story from the perspective of the birds and the man. She does what poets do. She delights. She surprises. She transmits her vision to her readers. She alters our perspective.

The poem is included in a new collection edited by poets Judith Kitchen and Ted Kooser, (former Poet Laureate of the US) called The Poets Guide To The Birds. The idea came to Ted Kooser as he was moving some books to a new library. In the process he went through some of them and was struck by how many of the poems were about birds. He called his friend, Judith Kitchen, to ask if she could think of any others. Together, they came up with more than 150 poems which were mostly written during the past thirty years. The roster includes a number of well-known poets like Wendell Berry, Brendan Galvin, Eamon Grennan, W.S. Merwin, and Ted Kooser, but most of these poets are new to me. Most of them don’t seem to be bird watchers but, individually and collectively, they seem to have honed in on that part of birds and birding which is at the core of our fascination and addiction. The common theme among the selections is the poet’s personal experience of birds or, in some cases, birds as a device to recount an intimate experience.

Bruce Bond writes about a Cardinal attacking his reflection in a window:

…It’s in his blood,
the way he rushes into himself like one
flame into another, stunned and shuddering

Rick Campbell’s Meditation on the Limit of Desire transmits a different experience of cardinals:

In this morning of cardinals
the neighbor’s cattle low
and a dog—who knows it master?
wails like a penitent awakened
not from a nightmare, but just another
night’s dream.

The cardinals are constant.
Warblers are intermittent. Woodpecker
a surprise, each drumming new
and unexpected. Behind this,
every few minutes, a dove coos.

Three summers ago I happened to visit a summer ornithology workshop for children at Audubon’s Maine Camp. I had dinner at a table full of twelve year olds. Impressed by their enthusiasm, I asked them to tell me why they had decided to spend their vacations at a birding camp. The best answer came from a tiny girl wearing a much-too-big pair of binoculars who told me that she became interested in birds when she found a Robin’s nest outside her bedroom window the previous summer and decided to keep a journal of everything that happened from nest building to fledging. She then reached into her backpack and showed me her journal. I couldn’t help thinking that this kid had the makings of a great scientist because she had the soul of a poet.

If you love nature and birds but think that you don’t like or can’t read poetry, The Poet’s Guide To The Birds will change your mind and your idea of birding. Read it and read it again.  Worlds within worlds are contained therein.

Wayne Mones
April 30, 2009