Register Wednesday | June 19 | 2019

Bird with Yellow Plumes

A Poem

—God help me, but I began talking to that bird—

From out of the sweetness of my soul I said,
          You there in your cage,
In the sun, on the balcony
Holding forth, you reactionary in feathers,—
You arbiter of taste, of how well the women
Carry themselves, of art’s anarchic impulse,
Why always the big production?
Can’t you simply whistle
Like any self-respecting bird?

You say, for heaven’s sake, throw back your shoulders.
You say, art is ten per cent will and the rest,
          The rest is surrender. How touching.
And you spill no tears for dead barbarians
And you vote right of center every time.
Ah, you’re a difficult bird, I said.
I spoke without motive or agenda.

Then I conveyed what else came to mind,
What leaked from out of something less than airtight
In me.


The gods are all in their ivy lair, I said,
And well rid of us. My, but it’s a hot one, isn’t it?
More terrible than any doom-pronouncement
Is a sneer, one laid on for no good reason,
And that bird had a sneer.
And the bird did not seem to know
He was in the world or of the world.
He seemed to think he was the world
And the keeper of its flame.


The world, did I say—from out of the usual sweetness
Of my soul? It was the street below.
That’s the world I saw from where I stood.
I could see no immortal architecture,
No Michelangelo at labor down there,
But a voluptuary turned her face to the sun.
All thought, I said, is ego.


And we extract from each other such trivia, I said,
As helps maintain our progress. I spoke thus,
From out of the sweetness of my soul,
On the nature of relationships, touching on
The collapse of the liberal system.
The bird warbled, seeming to think I hadn’t
Gone far enough.

Life is good, I said. But what’s life when it’s not
          What the kindly doctor ordered?
Horror is the answer, I said—from out of the sweetness of my soul
That, six days out of seven, is appalled.
You can’t put too fine a point on that, I said.
Why don’t you speak ill of my enemies? I said.
All you do is whistle at women and damn my poems.

All you do is find fault, I said, with my interpretation of events,
You who are insulted seven days out of seven,
You muezzin calling yourself to prayer
In a land where there are no faithful.

It had yellow plumes for a coiffure, this bird.
It was an image of the sun, this bird.
It was manic-depressive, this bird.
It’d start ranting at the break of day, this bird.
It was kind of helpless, this bird, and stunned.


The buds have burst into leaf, I said.
Thunder in the forecast, I said.
The bird seemed to say I wouldn’t get the Pulitzer for that.
Messalina, shod in white sandals, passed by, smiling.
A garment clung to her body, shimmering.
Sun and sex and bloody murder
Challenged my grasp of happiness.
Sun and sex and bloody murder
Loosened my grip on history.

There’s always a Messalina, and Messalina was always
Wreaking havoc with my values, was always
          Letting me know
Of what thin clay I’m made.

She walks on shoes of ocean surf, I said.
She’s a parade all by herself, I said.
The heat doesn’t seem to bother her much.
And by now, the bird was shrieking.
And by now, his head was resonating.
My dreams want air-conditioning, I said.
The buds have burst into leaf, I said,
Thunder, and just maybe, some kind
Of reckoning ahead, and we’re all condemned.


Life already has intrigues built-in,
And is strange and beyond our comprehension.
Why should a poet dream things up?
Look, bird, I said, what makes me try to be one
          Is lunacy
And an almost thorough-going intelligence.
The bird began to achieve crescendo.
I wasn’t going to take it personal.

No, from out of the sweetness of my soul, I
Began to talk of women I’d known and loved.
I said to the bird, didn’t you, bird,
Ever lose yourself, ever throw yourself
Deep into someone’s eyes, into some mystery?
Look you, I said, stop pretending you’re so superior,
That since you don’t have to work for a living,
You possess what approximates personality.
When did you ever date? I could use some sex
But it’s way too hot.


I don’t know what caught my eye: insect or glinting speck of dust,
But when I looked again the bird was gone, cage and all.
Ah, I said, it’s time for his medication.
My, but the silence was deafening.
And the gods are all in their ivy lair, I said
          without fear of contradiction.