for Deborah Digges
Said and done I’m choosing the redwing.
The unwritten rule is the rule of familiars
(familiar having a homely quality), those birds close by,
the ones you take for granted, though seasonal:
the mocker in the arbor picking at the grapes,
the house wren flowering in the dogwood,
the catbird mewling in and out of the hedge,
the infinite warbler warbling all summer...
But not the bird you feed all winter, the one who stays,
like the sometime cardinal (too present, too colorful),
who warms the snow at the window, who on the coldest day will sing,
since singing, by itself, like beauty, is nothing,
isn’t what the birdwatching world longs for.
Nor does the lyric thrush, brown as a fall oak leaf (its color its singing) qualify,
since death wants darkness but with a little flash of color.
Thus jays are equally pointless because obvious,
their blue blood, like a fresh wound, too bright.
Nor will the minion sparrow do, smaller than the thrush
and no less ordinary, plain as bread or prayer.
Yet she claimed for her own, once, vesper sparrows—
their treetop dexterity, their clear ascending
and descending flight song—then later changed her mind.
She, too, wanted something darker, with color,
redstart or starling or blue-black purple martin,
something in the evening light disappearing.
Those of us who’ll wish at last, as she did, for redwings
want the yellow of the sun under the heart’s blood
on each wing in measure just enough to remind us of where
we’ve come from, the way the blackbird (from the afterlife)
opening to fly brings back word from the old life to the new.
This poem originally ran in the April 28, 2011, issue of the magazine.
Follow @tnr on Twitter.