Monday, February 21, 2011
Number 75: David Baker "The Blue"
heron is gray, not blue, but great enough
against brown-tipped bowed cattails to be
well-named, is known for its stealth, shier
than a cloud, but won't fly or float away
when it's scared, stands there thinking maybe
it's invisible though it's not—tall, gray,
straight as a pole among the cloudy reeds.
Then it picks up one stem leg. This takes time.
And sets it down just beyond the other,
no splash, breath of a ripple, goes on
slowly across the silt, mud, algae-
throttled surface, through sedge grass,
to stand to its knees in water turning
grayer now that afternoon is evening.
Now that afternoon is evening
the gray heron turns blue, bluer than sky,
bluer than the mercury blue-black still pond.
So when did it snag the bullfrog
hanging, kicking, in its scissor beak?
To look so long means to miss the sudden.
It strides around like a sleek cat
from pond to bank and back, blue tall bird,
washing the frog, banging it against stones,
pecking almost as if it doesn't know
what to do now that it's caught such a thing.
How fast its beak must be to shoot out
like an arrow or that certain—as it's called—
slant of light. Blue light. Where did it go?
-- David Baker
Hap Notes: This is a lovely poem by David Baker (born 1954) and he's right, as you can see from the picture the "blue" heron is not really blue although some magic takes place around twilight and makes it seem so from the "violet hour" and the water and its feathers' depths.
Of course, bird nut that I am, I have to point out that it's not the "knee" of the bird one sees when looking at the odd way bird's legs seem to work. It's an elongated ankle bone, much like yours is, only extended. The "knee" of all birds, as it corresponds to human anatomy is hidden up in the feathers and it bends the same direction as yours does. The heron and the flamingo have especially long "ankle bones." Most birds have very long necks, although you don't see this because their necks are usually coiled in an "s" position (that's why dead birds' heads seem to bobble so much if you pick them up- the "s" is uncoiled.) In the case of the heron and the flamingo, the neck is uncurled and straight although some long necked birds (not the heron) fly with their necks in the "s" position. None of this is essential to the poem but close observation of our "dinosaur" neighbors is often rewarding if you know what you are looking at.
Herons move very cautiously, gracefully and slowly. They are often good at camouflaging themselves in the reeds and cat-tails but it's just because they can stand very still. The poet talks about the bird standing still thinking this will make you think it's not there. Which, once a human has spotted them, looks odd. One supposes this works better when avoiding predators. This delicately slow moving bird can snag a frog or mouse with lightning speed, though.
Baker makes his observations about the bird but already the mind is making other connections with human behavior and perceptions. The light at twilight is often called the "magic hour" because for about an hour before dark, the natural lighting is most flattering and beautiful. Then, it quickly evaporates. Seriously, even a garbage dump gets some magic from that hour.
David Baker has written nine books of poetry including his highly lauded most recent one, Never-Ending Birds. He was born in Maine, raised in Missouri and is a professor of English at Denison University in Ohio. He also edits the Kenyon Review. His prose books on poetry sparkle.
[ Little side note which shows the circuitous way poetry works:
One of the reasons I chose Baker is because I read an interview with him where he said that the first poetry he read was by James Whitcomb Riley and I was charmed by this. Riley's was the only poetry book my grandparents owned and it's a marvel that Baker (and I) grew to love poetry from this except....
Riley wrote a poem "Knee Deep In June" that is full of choppy, idiomatic vernacular like "Sort o' so's a man kin breathe/ Like he ort, and kind o' has/ Elbow-room to keerlessly/ Sprawl out len'thways" etc. and it's a bit of a gnarly read (aloud helps) but in the poem (which is long) he describes a blue jay as being in a "baseball suit" and it rings so delightfully true. I wanted to use the poem but, honestly I couldn't make ya'll hack through it. It's worth a read though and here it is if you want to tackle it- it has rewards: www.poemhunter.com/poem/knee-deep-in-june/ ]
Here's a good Baker quote: "To write poetry is to place one’s faith in music and mystery and magic and difficulty—a commitment to the imagination’s powerless power and to freedom of all kinds—and also in the long-range hope that the work of poets matters to a culture as well as to an individual."
You can find more Baker here: www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/david-baker