Friday, 29 April 2016

Andrew McNeillie: Birds of America

I woke again… inside a dream, startled,
On an internal flight… The navigator beside me
No sooner put his flight plan down than he
Began to show me pages out of Audubon:
The Birds of America, from Original Drawings
With 435 Plates Showing 1,065 Figures.

My first thought was that we would crash.
So many foreign objects flying. I put myself into
The brace position. But he laughed and turned
The pages: so many pages, so many birds. I could hear the air
Beat with their unnameable wings, as we descended
Into the frontier morning, where a Cardinal presided

Singing in the bushes to his heart’s content.
I seemed to know at once it was a Cardinal,
A scarlet, crested, black-faced finch,
With the most melodious of voices.
I could see the sense in that, a start I might welcome in
The new world when I woke and clambered from the wreckage.

But suppose it had been a Grackle or
A Brown Thrasher from the Catbird family,
Would it have left me looking awry?
Or a Bobolink or a Cowbird? Scratching my head
At those queer birds, stumbling in the dark wood
On the road less travelled, as poets should?

From Now, Then (2002). McNeillie is British (Welsh-Scots), so this is a foreigner’s encounter with the birds of America and with the displacement of being in parts foreign. It’s the displacement of dream: whether or not McNeillie has actually been to the United States isn’t relevant. I don’t understand why at the end he brings in echoes of Dante and Frost – it seems a clashing shift in registers of irony.

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