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Sandpipers, Elizabeth Bishop, and Hannukah!

December 3, 2010

I’ve been revisiting my first sighting of a White Rumped Sandpiper (Calidris fuscicollis) today, thanks to a poem by Elizabeth Bishop. I first saw the bird on a trip to Presqu’Ile Provicial Park in early September. (It was on this trip that I witnessed, firsthand, that there are people who like to camp with satellite dishes, which I find both disconcerting and, at the same time, technologically extraordinary, but then again, I’m still stunned by the magic of the fax machine, so of course a satellite dish strapped to a tent would send me into paroxysms of technological awe.)

I saw the Sandpiper, watched him closely, as he fought against the wind, took tentative steps, in search of something. I forgot about the wandering sandpiper until this afternoon, when Elizabeth Bishop managed to bring the entire day back for me. Perhaps even more clearly now that I can remember it through the prism of her images.


The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.

The beach hisses like fat. On his left,
a sheet of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

–Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them,
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.

The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.
His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray,
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

Bishop must have been a birdwatcher or at least a bird aficionado because she gets it absolutely right in the line “no detail too small”. I love how Bishop plays with the notion of seeing (observing, watching, etc): the reader watches the poet observe the bird who is, in turn, looking for something specific in his own little world, to which neither the poet nor reader has full access. We can only imagine what birds focus their vision on.

And, because you’re all dying to know, a White-Rumped Sandpiper is a veisshinterteil zandfeifer in Yiddish!

Happy Hannukah, everybody! May you all have a wonderful, light-filled year!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 11, 2010 12:14 am

    It’s a great poem–about writing poetry.
    The photo is of a Semipalmated Sandpiper, though, right?

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