Some years back, the University of Pittsburgh’s Frick Fine Arts Museum asked me to write a poem about its exhibition of Audubon bird prints and include it in a reading there. I decided to do with words to Audubon what Coltrane did with sounds to “My Favorite Things”—to turn a well-loved work of traditional art into a modernist work. I used the language equivalents of the principles of cubist painting to deconstruct and then reconstruct the reality of Audubon. The poem is called “Imaginary Landscape with 29 Birds.” The first 28 stanzas of the poem each describe a specific bird Audubon painted. The 29th bird is Brancusi’s sculpture, Bird in Space. “Imaginary Landscape with 29 Birds” was published in my first book of poetry, Music from Words.
IMAGINARY LANDSCAPE WITH 29 BIRDS
Reptile stalking snake legs balance
whiter feather arching cruelty ending eyes
black-brown scissors poking after lizard slither.
Water ripples moving sand dunes follow
white plumed body backwards happy
neck primed to suck a fly off surface.
Claws embed in dying bird flesh dripping
blood and liver morsels brooding watchful
screeches floating feathers settling cliffward.
Pale cerulean cover clouds with bloodlust cackle
steel spikes slashing deeply into rabbit quiver
huge brown crossing peaks and whitecaps.
Blackened wing expanses stretching craw prongs
cradle deer head beaks a lover poised
to poke moist eyes sharing spoils making love.
Yellow claws clutch and lean away
from air stream joyful pipes to airborne
wind spans whirling over faded branch.
Turned away from sea cliff yearning
fledgling squawkers black and iron slivers
sparse crest move to hidden magnet wind rocks.
Webbed feet fern leaves clutch rock
brown and golden furry side rosettes
swelling doltish black-spot flowering eye-ring.
Six orange-headed white caw fly dead branches
bright green feathers move about conceiving leaves
at distance summer pecking hairy nuts.
Crest-hanging long white twists
wise considers distant farmer rice patch
yellow lances trample weed.
Barnacle molds adorning branches
beak thrust in beak thrust ensconcing kisses
feeding flap wings blissful yawn.
One web foot like white clam sucking black
hook-hanging eggshell beak, ballooning bellows
below bill shore-receded light house.
Black and white caught spreading action
water curve evading throat curve
open beak lands dead tree leaflessness.
Roseated wing expanse drips carmine deep
spoon bill wobbles claw-gripped rock decline
to gnat soup distant islands dreary.
Night vitreous orbs yellow and question
in love with black in plume a thousand
birds in flight toward thickened nape.
Contented spiteful dissecting trout
open beak eye yellow glee beyond
river edge chopped cap white fly town.
Great White Heron
Black and pallid angel wings command
blench blue sky rough waters shriveled red legs
dangling steady taut dilapidated sea swells.
Pink-beak canopy on shore draws
over lesser bird isosceles carnelian
deeper than the water bleaching stand.
One slow red-legged paddles airborne snoot
green-quill cockade floating into lilies
one bullet flight aimed at marsh grass.
Happy yellow compass comrade thrusting
back at turgid blue, darkly cobalt jets
ingot hanging wind endurance.
Great Blue Heron
Stream stepping craning open beak
unwary insect dark bar feathers
balance spawn in waded crest immobile.
Flaming solid crimson arch of neck
in taper shoulder wilting tail marsh
soak fellow splashing travelers.
Yellow lining red smear blue smear yellow
white orb black top looking out befuddled
bloated white stripe grasses orange needle.
Cochineal seashell fear comb undergrowth
step softly craning pea-head panic perched
on purple candy-caned futility.
Long brown pods of honey-locust split
and seedless blackness pecks at bareness
clasps on pencil furling wing.
One of many riding eastern hemlock
penetrating yellow bud other hanging
lanterns other flapping celebrations.
Black oak’s grandiose green and tawny
butterflies unaware of to whip-poor whirring menace
set to pounce one already swallows colors.
World-weary dark grasses blooming
blue and auburn wrinkles drowsy curving
neck descent to ancient eyes watching ruin.
Or instead a shining metal elongation
lusting, thrusting towards the sky,
blinding color abstract movement.
Bird in Space
Originally published in Music from Words (Bellday Books, 2007)