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Some of the winged treasures: Emily Dickinson on the jay; Gertrude Stein on pigeons; Seamus Heaney on turkeys; Tennyson on the eagle; Spenser on the merry cuckoo; Amy Clampitt on the ...
Some of the winged treasures: Emily Dickinson on the jay; Gertrude Stein on pigeons; Seamus Heaney on turkeys; Tennyson on the eagle; Spenser on the merry cuckoo; Amy Clampitt on the whippoorwill; Po Chü-i on cranes; John Updike on seagulls; W.S. Merwin on the duck; Elizabeth Bishop on the sandpiper; Rilke on flamingoes; Margaret Atwood on vultures; the Bible on the ostrich; Sylvia Plath on the owl; Melville on the hawk; Yeats on wild swans; Virgil on the harpies; Thomas Hardy on the darkling thrush; and Wallace Stevens on thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird.
A gull, up close,
looks surprisingly stuffed.
His fluffy chest seems filled with an inexpensive taxidermist's material rather lumpily inserted. The legs,
unbent, are childish crayon strokes--
too simple to be workable.
And even the feather-markings,
whose intricate symmetry is the usual glory of birds,
are in the gull slovenly,
as if God makes them too many to make them very well.
Are they intelligent?
We imagine so, because they are ugly.
The sardonic one-eyed profile, slightly cross,
the narrow, ectomorphic head, badly combed,
the wide and nervous and well-muscled rump all suggest deskwork: shipping rates by day, Schopenhauer by night, and endless coffee.
At that hour on the beach when the flies begin biting in the renewed coolness and the backsliding skin of the after-surf reflects a pink shimmer before being blotted,
the gulls stand around in the dimpled sand like those melancholy European crowds that gather in cobbled public squares in the wake of assassinations and invasions,
heads cocked to hear the latest radio reports.
It is also this hour when plump young couples walk down to the water, bumping together,
and stand thigh-deep in the rhythmic glass.
Then they walk back toward the car,
tugging as if at a secret between them but which neither quite knows--
walk capricious paths through the scattering gulls,
as in some mythologies beautiful gods stroll unconcerned among our mortal apprehensions.
John Updike on "Seagulls":
My distinct memory is that I was pondering gulls while lying on Crane Beach in Ipswich when the first stanza came over me in a spasm of inspiration. Penless and paperless, I ran to the site of a recent beach fire and wrote in charcoal on a large piece of unburned driftwood. Then I cumbersomely carried my improvised tablet home. It must have been late in the beach season, and my final stanzas slow to ripen, for the poem's completion is dated early December.
Posted March 9, 2009
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