Literal (poem)

Magpie in flight

Something today having nothing to do with ordinance, politics, any of that.  After all, my main reason for setting up this site & blog is to act as adjunct to my writing.  (The fact that I sometimes also write about political stuff is just gravy.  Or something.)

A good poem for a day in early June.


A bird, a word in black and white, burst through
the undifferentiated green screen
of foliage lining one side of the flat
paved path where I was walking busyminded
and blind.  Long tail, ungainly flight — it flew
across from right to left into the green
on the path’s other side to land on a branch
of a tree.  It chucked a couple times and preened.
The tree was white and black, a tree I knew,
a birch.  But I didn’t know, had never seen,
this awkward raucous bird.  When I could ask,
I was told magpie.  How literate I once seemed!
How many times I’d read its flat name in a book!
But now I see the word in flight everywhere I look.

[January 28, 1997]

Some notes on the poem: A couple of days ago when I got off work early on my short day (flextime hours over the summer) & went out to the bus stop. Just before the bus arrived, a very forward magpie flew down just in front of the bus shelter, where a number of people were waiting for buses, & strutted around the sidewalk. This fellow, or gal it may be, was so close, so forward — I immediately dug for my camera. But too late — the magpie flew away. But not too late: it flew up to a light pole right beside the bus stop, one with a big yellow & blue “Alaska 50” statehood anniversary banner. Cool, that’d make a great photo! — a magpie celebrating 50 years of Alaska statehood, right? (though one would hope the bird wouldn’t, y’know, make the banner white at all, you get my meaning) — & what’s more, my camera has 10x optical zoom, so it’d be a great shot.

But it was very bright out, I couldn’t see on my camera’s screen where I was aiming (I miss having a real viewfinder), & the bus was coming; & once I was on the bus & checked the results of my hurried shots, they all turned out to be crummy misaimed shots of parts of the light pole.

Still, reminded me of the many other forward magpies I’ve met since finally learning what a magpie even looked like.  Which is a lot later than you’d think.  But I’m pretty sure that magpies used to be a lot scarcer in Anchorage than they are now, & the year I first learned what they looked like — about 1993 or 1994 I think — seems to have been the first year they were here in very high numbers.

Whatever the case, I’d seen magpies referred to in stuff I read for a long time before I ever saw one & knew that’s what I was seeing.  And that’s what this poem is about.  Written in 1997, during my time in the MFA program — we may have had an assignment to do a sonnet, because that’s what this is, albeit one with very slant rhymes.

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