this early morning while I'm revising
a poem I've tried for years to make as strong
as I'm able. I think it's a redwing
blackbird—but I'm not sure—not having learned
the little lore that comes from staying put
long enough in a place to hear birdsong
or to know what that whatchamacallit
with a hanging thingamajig is called.
I tell you, I think half the fun (or more)
of being alive in the world is learning
the names of things so there are no things at all
left in the world, so that dying you know
exactly what you are leaving behind.
Which is why I've stuck with this old poem
I mentioned that treats an awful period
in my life when I fell for the wrong men,
had a score of phobias that ran riot
over my common sense and a closet
I could barely close for all the skeletons
I didn't want to name or talk about.
Now that I'm happy I should sink those bones
deep in a repressed memory, but some
perverseness keeps me going back to name
those sadnesses as if my tongue
could cure by catalogue, as if a song
were all that was needed against the pain
of having been so lost—the redwing's gone--
taking his song along. Now all that's left
is that awful silence which as a girl
I was taught to fill up with pretty talk
so as to make everyone comfortable;
the kind of talk that is equivalent
to vacuum cleaner noise, sucks everything
interesting out of talk and isn't meant
to ease a three-o'clock in the morning
terror, say. Against such talk I write
or try to anyway—that other kind
of talk that is as awful as silence
if it hits the mark, when just the right
string of words will make your life fall in line
and shine with an eloquent radiance.
Just the other night at a reception
I was politely working my way out
after fulfilling the obligation
that had brought me there. Oh dreary night!
I was ready for stars, a heady rain
or cool breeze tangling my skirt in my legs--
when a Fred or a Tom, a nametag name,
came up to me. I'm not sure what he said
but with a few questions he'd taken us
deep into the spell of the night going on
outside those closed windows. I could have wept
for finding at long last this oasis
of real talk. The breeze blew in. The stars came on
inside that room. I thanked him when I left.
I was driving somewhere far with a friend,
some talk was going on: she said, I said--
the kind of conversation rightly penned
dialogue in the handbooks. Then instead
of her next cue, she asked me what I thought
of her, really thought. Oh Jesus, I thought,
we still have a long ways to go and what
do I know what she means to do with what
I tell her. Use it to sue me?! Call it
a risk I took or say that small Tercel
drove me to higher ground. I told the truth
mostly, as Huck says, then asked what she thought
of me. I could've stopped the car right there
as this was where we'd wanted to get to.
I bought a record of common birdsongs
so as to learn to tell the birds apart,
but I gave up trying to follow along.
I'd have one bird down, say, a meadowlark,
chee-up-trill. But right on its tailfeathers
came the peewee with its pee-ah-wee,
sounding just like the zee-zee of the warbler
or the drink your tea (so it sounded to me)
of the towhee. Finally, to top it all,
the mockingbird mimicking everyone.
It was bird-Babel worse than biblical
to human ears, which should humble us some
to think our poems no more than mating trills
for the birds: whan-that-aprill, whan-that-aprill.
I had this friend—we were always talking.
She'd come over or I'd go to her place
and as she let me in we'd start talking
up the stairs to her flat. I was amazed
we ever got sat down with coffee cups
in our hands or ever stopped our talking
long enough to drink what was in those cups.
We'd take a walk and suddenly look up
lost, but finish our points before trying
to discuss our way back. Were we crazy
binge-talkers or sensing the imminence
of what became our lives' parting, maybe
we were preparing then for this silence?
I've heard said that among the eskimos
there are over a hundred words for snow:
the soft kind, the hard driving kind, the roll
a snowball kind: snow being such a force
in their lives, it needs a blizzard of words.
In my own D.R. we have many rains:
the sprinkle, the shower, the hurricane,
the tears, the many tears for our many dead.
I've asked around and find that in all tongues
there are at least a dozen words for talk:
the heart-to-heart, the chat, the confession,
the juicy gossip, the quip, the harangue--
no matter where we're from we need to talk
about snow, rain, about being human.
Only a few times has talk failed me,
times when I realized nothing that I said
or heard would help, when I felt I could be
talking outside my species, times the dead
would have made more involved listeners, times
I could tell by my narrowed eyes, cocked head
that all I said was being ground down fine,
then mixed with shards of mistrust to be fed
right back to me, while the same marinade
was stewing inside me. I don't know how
to turn a talk around once it goes bad.
Sometimes I think of writing as a way
of going back to those failures and somehow
saying exactly what I wish I'd said.
He's back—perched on the line—not just a song
from some distracting watchamacallit,
but obvious in his glossy uniform--
which might explain why he's my favorite,
recalling with his gorgeous epaulettes
my childhood in a dictatorship
when real talk was punishable by death,
though some—like him—refused such censorship.
As now he belts his song, breaking the hold
of that past as his compañeros come,
a regiment on the line, all going strong,
affirming that the saying of the world
is what we're meant to do with chirps or words.
So you take it from here, redwing blackbirds!