BIRD-WATCHING

Benjamin Harnett

PROCESS

If you take the left path
as you are walking the trail
you find yourself winding down
through a thicket—someone
has put boards down to keep your feet
from mud. It opens to a stand,
plywood and two-by-fours,
that juts into the estuary,
that flat pool of sky cut
with reeds. A blue heron lifting
from itself becomes
twinned in flight,
above and below:


“They’re quite common,”
the bird-watcher says
to our oohs and aahs.
He would say the same
of a white crane.
In my head I tell him
and his khaki cargo vest
to fuck right off. I am always


bird-watching; listening too.
Last dusk it was the catbird,
a farrago of imitations,
whistles, squeaks, gurgles,
and whines. I found him


at last, just before he
stopped his singing, there in
the arm of the dying elm,
somber, gray,
with a black hat.
Nothing on this earth


is quite common, and I am
so thankful
for that.

I read this poem again, twice, looking for the lines: “We have / attributed it, jokingly, our avian opulence, / to ‘the plague.’” But they are missing. It is not the poem I remember. At the same time, I read it and think, “Oh, this is good.” Also not the poem I remember. I am far enough away from it now to read it as any reader would, without context, without preconceived notions, without the missing lines. It is finally far enough away from me that I can read it without wanting to change something; at least I have no power, at last, to change what is “in print.”

 

Now I do a hard-drive search for those missing words. Not a metaphor. Nope. To the MacBook “Finder,” and see what pops up. I can hear the drive chugging. The keyboard transfers some heat to my fingertips. It might be time for an upgrade. (It is past time for an upgrade.) It is a lie, what I said earlier, that I was looking for those lines: I vaguely remembered something, maybe “abundance” and a reference to “the plague;” certainly the word “avian.” This is something like what a poem does: Not lie, but find its own truth, a useful truth. Which may be as cocked from lived experience as true from magnetic north.
 

The lines are from a poem I wrote called “The Coins in the Grave of King Childeric” and the lines that precede it are about a pair of goldfinches landing on flowering catnip. There is a whole stanza about the different birds in our yard. I remember now. “Bird-Watching” wasn’t working and “The Coins in the Grave, etc. etc.” wasn’t working either. So I took the opening of the first and used it in the second. Both worked better. Why? Here is where I get self- conscious—I feel that a “true” poet ought to know. The same way a painter knows what strokes will achieve what effects, how to bring something into the foreground, or the right flake of white to make an earring shine. At least I assume the painter knows.
 

It could be the same: a learned feeling. The hands moving to something beneath the conscious mind. In that way some poets, like myself, must be the worst in understanding their own work, in explaining it.
 

I am not a “Bird Watcher” but lately I have been noticing birds more. A lot of times I will take a picture of something. Filter it on Instagram until it matches what I really saw, and post it. Mission: accomplished. When I can’t, I’ll write down a few words instead. Shabby, insufficient reminders, usually into the Notes App on my phone. Or, less-frequently a scrap of paper. This is more problematic, because I usually can’t read them. Of course the notes sometimes evade understanding on a revisit. I made a note of the goldfinches. And a puffed-up cardinal.
 

Then there was the late afternoon I was standing in the yard—what? picking up broken sticks after a storm?—and heard the catbird, before I saw it. This I wrote like in a diary.
 

I try to gather up my scraps into poems periodically, almost methodically. (There are poems that come like a shot, but this was not one.) Then I thought of the encounter in the estuary. A real “Bird Watcher” and took the opportunity to tell him off. I noodled around, coming back every few days, like a bird seeing if I’ve refilled the seed. The process is mundane, and kills the mystery and glamor of poetry altogether: change a few words here, hit “return” or “delete” to change the look of the lines. The poem got wider, then narrowed (they always seem to narrow), it lost its top for the benefit of itself and another poem. But it was always stuck with the black cap of the catbird.
 

Finally, I imagined myself saying something back to the “Bird Watcher” about “the common” Blue Heron, something simple and true, something more cutting, perhaps, than the earlier “fuck you.” Of the tacked-on ending, I thought I would make it more poetic, round its edges or make it less pat. Kill the rhyme with “hat,” or fix the transition, or a million other things: “make it better,” I kept thinking, damn it, “make it better.” But the poem put its foot down. The poem was done.

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