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Magical Juncos

November 12, 2012

The first time I saw a Junco (Junco hyemalis), back in spring of 2010, the bird just seemed entirely, unremarkably grey and drab. And then, a few months ago, I encountered the Junco in Don McKay‘s poem, and since then the bird has acquired a whole new dimension:


Where “shades of grey” acquires
esprit: slaty, dark-eyed,
sooty, dapper, hooded —
quick bits of dusk stitching fir
to birch to rock the boreal
All winter
they animate the understory, inscribing
runic ciphers in the snow
and discrete diacritical chips
along their flight paths.
One oriole,
it is said, can shift the heart
into its own outcry.
But it’s the juncos,
in their undertaker outfits,
who slip unnoticed into melancholy
smuggling minims of lift.

Bless them. They exit
with a wink, tail
snapping open like a card hand to reveal
white feathers at each edge:
Come spring
they’ll find the tallest spines of spruce
and trill the sun from one
saw-toothed horizon to the other.

from Don McKay’s Paradoxides (2012)

Not only is birding teaching me how to see more clearly, but it’s also helping me become a better reader of poetry. What a gift that I can now visualize the exact bird McKay has in mind and though I hadn’t attributed any particular “esprit” to a Junco before, the greyish coloring now appears in a new, slightly magical light.

Photo from here.

Prosody-loving birders! Are you reading Don McKay? If not, you’re seriously missing out, and I envy the thrill you’ll experience reading his books of poetry for the first time.

In other news, my 2013 Sibley Bird Calendar has arrived and I’m thrilled to report that my Birthday Bird (September, folks) is a Wild Turkey. OK, in an ideal world, Mr. David Sibley, September would be graced with a Scarlet Tanager or an Indigo Bunting, but I’ll take the Turkey over a Canada Goose (sad, sad 2011 occurrence) any day! And while we’re on the topic of your calendar, Mr. Sibley, I think I liked it better when the birds themselves occupied more space and there was less white space on the page, but these are minor details. The package that delivered your calendar to my door, Mr. David Sibley, was the highlight of my day.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 12, 2012 11:01 pm

    I like the poem, but I really don’t understand “discrete … chips” (did he mean discreet?) or “diacritical chips.” You?

  2. November 13, 2012 3:59 pm

    I took “discrete diacritical” to mean “distinct” sounds (the 5-syllable diacritical worked for me — almost as a series of chips and in of itself). That said, I don’t think I’m going to quote poetry w/Wordpress anymore — the entire poem seems to come out in italics (!) and none of McKay’s great indentations came through. I know this is my shortcoming, and probably not wordpress’s but anyhow…

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