09 February 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/6


How do I look to the birds above?
My hair is a mess
my clothes all tattered

How do I look to the birds above?
My hair is a nest
my clothes don't matter

Gavin Geoffrey Dillard

Here's some reassuring and even raffish philosophy, for the next time you're feeling unkempt or out of step stylishly. The title, referring presumably to the date when the poem was written, sets the tone for what follows: this is poetry as emotional diary, as more or less deceptively casual aperçu, as a floating reflection of the thoughts (witty, profound, silly, lustful) occasioned by our minds wandering through the world. The poem could have been written in ancient China, and it does seem aligned in spirit and style to the translations of Asian poetry popular in America, particularly on the west coast, since the middle of the last century. But the date pins it down to a particular time, and probably to a particular moment implied in the poet's life (and this aesthetic – the moment captured and occasionally transfigured – is found in the rest of thie collection, in which the poet talks about men he's loved and/or slept with, cats, flowers, insects, the weather, aging – the random and central stuff of life).

This brief poem relies heavily on repetition for its effects. He starts with a question: How do I look to the birds above? Is this just a momentary whimsy? Or is he self-conscious that his appearance doesn't fit in with wherever he is? Since he's thinking about the birds above, I assume he's outdoors, maybe walking down a street. Perhaps it's early morning, and he's walking home after a night out, and he's surrounded by people going to work, looking askance at him – the particular situation is left to your imagination; someone else might come up with a completely different scenario. All we really know is that the poet is suddenly conscious that his hair is a mess, his clothing old and tattered. The people he doesn't fit in with are implied, because he is suddenly self-conscious about his appearance, which leads him to ask how he looks to the birds – will their reaction be different from society's implied reaction? Birds can fly away, birds are musical, birds have a beauty that is different from ours but comprehensible to us.

So in the second stanza, he repeats his initial question, only this time the answer is given from a bird's-eye view, rather than the social perspective we saw in the first stanza: for a bird, his messy hair would have the homey appeal of a nest (this is a vivid description; my hair often looks like that); for a bird, his coverings, tattered or not, are odd and not important. As I said earlier, repetition is a key element here, but so are the alterations, the easy-going almost-rhymes that register the discrepancy between what people see in him and what he thinks the birds would see: mess / nest for the hair and all tattered / don't matter for his outfit. A different perspective can be a refreshing thing. I imagine the poet walking on under the watch of his birds, invigorated and confident.

I took this from The Naked Poet: Poems from 1970 to 1985 by Gavin Geoffrey Dillard. It appears to be out of print, and I found no listings for it on Abe Books or eBay, usually the best sources for out-of-print books, but there are some available on Amazon for prices ranging from high to outrageously high. I should warn you if you click on the link that though I don't know if the young man on the cover is the poet, he is definitely naked, so use whatever NSFW precautions you feel are necessary.


Michael Strickland said...

What a daring Monday choice, I can't wait to click on the NSFW link. And your hair is a marvel, and I can testify that in all the years I've known you I've never seen it looking like a wild bird's nest, though I can't say the same for a number of other poets I have enountered over the years.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I did figure the NSFW warning might lead to more clickage than usual; I only wish there were more easily available copies of the book. Very glad you liked the poem. I actually brought it to mind this morning while I was feeling particularly shabby and tatty on the morning train, and I took some comfort from it.

And thanks for declaring that my hair is a marvel, though it does indeed have its wild-bird's-nest moments, which I try to keep private, since as already noted fashion is not my strong suit.