Ground Birds in Open Country
They fly up in front of you so suddenly, tossed, like gravel, by the handful, kicked like snow or dead leaves into life. Or if it's spring they break back and forth like schools of fish silver at the surface, like the swifts I saw in the hundreds over the red tile roofs of Assisi— they made shadows, they changed sunlight, and at evening, before vespers, waved back to the blackbird nuns. My life list is one bird at a time long, what Roethke calls looking. The eye, particular for color, remembers when a treeful would go gray with applause, in the middle of nowhere, in a one-oak field. I clapped my hands just for the company. As one lonely morning, green under glass, a redwing flew straight at me, its shoulders slick with rain that hadn't fallen yet. In the birdbook there, where the names are, it's always May, and the thing so fixed we can see it—Cerulean, Blackpoll, Pine. The time one got into the schoolroom we didn't know what it was, but it sang, it sailed along the ceiling on all sides, and blew back out, wild, still lost, before any of us, stunned, could shout it down. And in a hallway once, a bird went mad, window by locked window, the hollow echo length of a building. I picked it up closed inside my hand. I picked it up and tried to let it go. They fly up so quickly in front of you, without names, in the slurred shapes of wings. Scatter as if shot from twelve-gauge guns. Or they fly from room to room, from memory past the future, having already gathered in great numbers on the ground.
From Orphan Hours by Stanley Plumley. Copyright © 2012 by Stanley Plumley. Reprinted with permission of W. W. Norton & Co.