October. I was out this week walking along a beach and noticed that the migration of birds had really begun. Watching a flock of Canada geese lift off a salt pond and head south, I had the vague thought that seeing them leaving the place where I had seen them all summer feeding in the reeds was like watching the body separating from the soul. And then I remembered where that thought had came from, a single vivid image in a poem that I'd heard Andrew Hudgins read this summer at the Sewanee Writers' Conference in Tennessee. What had stayed in my mind was the picture of a flock of grackles rising up out of a chinaberry tree, retaining the shape of the tree for a moment in the air, and then scattering.
The poem, which comes from his most recent book, Babylon In a Jar (Houghton Mifflin), actually describes the event twice. In between the two descriptions, the poem dramatizes the speaker's response and interprets it. It's an interesting pattern -- description, interpretation, description. I can see how I got the idea that it was an image of the soul peeling off the body, a mysterious visual enactment of a kind of dispersal, but the interpretation in the poem is more indirect and suggestive than I had remembered. Look at the way it moves from the birds and the trees to the body and its shadow, and the way the speaker seems to have stumbled onto some mocking self-knowledge. It's very strange. Here's the poem:
I couldn't stand there watching them forever,
but when I moved
the grackles covering
each branch and twig
together into flight
and for a moment in midair they held
the tree's shape
the black tree
peeling from the green,
they were its shadow or its soul, before
as grackles heading south for winter grain fields.
was just a chinaberry tree,
the birds were simply grackles.
made from this world and where I stood in it.
But you can't know how long
I stood there watching.
And you can't know how desperate I'd become
each step on the feet of my
how bitter and afraid I was
matching step after step with the underworld,
my ominous, indistinct and mirror image
extreme and antic nothings
the ground I walked on,
elongated and foreshadowed parodies
foot lowering itself
onto its shadow.
And you can't know how I had tried to force
the moment, make it happen
before it happened --
not necessarily this
though this is what I saw:
black birds deserting the tree they had become,
for a moment in midair,
the chinaberry's shadow for a moment,
after they had ceased to be
meaning after meaning --
birds strewn across the morning like flung gravel
they found themselves again as grackles,
found each other,
and headed there,
while I stood before
the green, abandoned tree.