Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Four hundred tongues

The neighborhood mockingbird (the many-tongued mimic, known to Native Americans as "Cencontlatolly" or "four hundred tongues" has taken to beginning his evening serenade around 11 pm of late, just about the time the people down the street put their young dog out for the night. The dog whines and yaps incessantly and this seems to be the mocker's cue to begin his recital for those of us awake and with the windows open.

MOCKINGBIRD MONTH
A pupa of pain, I sat and lay one July,
companioned by the bird the Indians called "four hundred tongues."
Through the dark in the back yard by my bed,
through the long day near my front couch,
the bird sang without pause an amplified song
"two-thirds his own," books told me,
"and one-third mimicry."


Gray charmer, "the lark and nightingale in one,"
unremitting maker of music so full of wit
and improvisation, I strained by night and light

to hear the scientists' record: "In ten minutes
he mimicked thirty-two species." I counted eight
(even I) variations on cardinal's song alone.

Cock of the neighborhood, his white flashes of wing
and long distinguished tail ruled the bushes and boughs,
and once, enchanted, I saw him walk past my house,
herding, from three feet behind, the neighbor's nice, cowardly cat.
He controlled without any fuss
but took little time off. Most of our month he sang.

The sticky wings of my mind began to open
No mere plagiarist, a Harold Bloom singer,
he leaned on, but played with, robin, or jay or
starling or whippoorwhill. I began to prefer
him and house and hurting to the world outdoors.
Both art and art-lover attend to what may happen.

The weeks went by. At two a.m. he'd begin
my steadier, stronger, surer flight through his airs,
and the sun sent us into heights of his lyric together.
Virtuoso though he was, I was learning his repertoire.
Who would have thought the moth of me would tire?
Toward the end of a month in concert I began to complain.

Constant cadence, I told him, gives one no rest.
Is it my fault you must be lonesome for a mate?
There must be no nestlings to feed (when do you eat?).
What master of complexity won't duplicate with incessant singing?
Delete, delete, delete,
shut up for a while my bird-brained, brilliant stylist!

I left him for the North and less prolific birds
(but not before reading a chatty chapter on him
by a man who threw a shoe treeward at four a.m.
to stop "that endless torrent"),
my movement a handsome tribute to his voice.
Leaving my pencils at home,
I resolved to husband my own apprentice words.

MONA VAN DUYN

Sometime past midnight I heard a neighbor yelling, "shut up! stop it"; whether to the mocker or the yelping dog I'm not sure. I enjoy listening to him sing as I fall asleep and do try to name the bird he's mocking as I drift off. A pair nested for a number of years in a spirea bush in our yard, but since getting cable tv and doing away with our old-fashioned tv antenna they don't seem to find our yard as attractive and have moved across the street to the cemetery. I used to love to watch the mockingbirds *dance* up there on the antenna - jumping into the air with wings extended, only to flutter down in the same place face-down, before turning around with wings out to repeat the dance, singing all the while.

5 comments:

Susan Gets Native said...

I like the cheeky little cusses.
One really threw me one night because it sounded like a bird get together out in the trees. Blue jay, red-tailed hawk, pychotic starling...he was really outdoing himself.

Jimmy said...

I've only seen one once and I have never heard one sing....

MojoMan said...

Very nice! I haven't heard them at night. I'll have to listen more carefully.

Hey! Are you sure you're allowed to have your windows open? I think it's mandatory that you seal up the house and turn on the AC.

TDharma said...

great poem. Man, that pisses me off when people put their dogs outside to bark all night (or all day for that matter). They ought to get a "distrubing the peace" citation. That's just plain WRONG.

Your last sentence there could be a poem all by itself, Laura!

LauraHinNJ said...

I hate AC! Really it's just that I hate having the house all closed up.

I think the whiney dog may be a puppy, from the sound of him. I don't know how they can stand to listen to it! Wish they would bring him in.