819: Egrets (in memory of Barry Lopez)

819: Egrets (in memory of Barry Lopez)

819: Egrets (in memory of Barry Lopez)


I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.

I recently saw a dystopian movie in which a protagonist self-mutilates and shears off a finger for performance. The camera panned close to make sure audiences took in the full action. During the scene, a man directly across the aisle from me in the theater not only gasped in horror (expected) but groaned painfully (unexpected). His groans brought attention to himself. The whole while the fake finger dripped with fake blood. I could hear people shifting in their seats in discomfort, not from the gruesome scene, but from the audible sounds of agony just a few seats away.

The moaning man did not need to suspend disbelief; life and art were the same to him.

I once saw a Tarantino film on a first date. (I know. I know; probably not the most considered way to make a first impression.) Tarantino’s signature violence started within the first five minutes of the film. My date squirmed and cringed. She reared back with every punch, as though she were being pummeled. I thought she was acting. She, too, made audible sounds of terror. She jumped into her seat and grabbed her knees. When she buried her head and began to cry, I asked if she’d like to go. We left only ten minutes into the film. That such violence did not repel me, I wondered... Was I that desensitized? Or were the writer, director and actor doing their artistic job in making us face our own reactions to such gore?

Writers build universes out of letters and words from mere marks of a pen or keystrokes on a keyboard: an interiority to be heard and imagined in the reader’s mind. Which is to say: poets rely on readers to make pictures in their head or to hear the thoughts of the speaker in a poem. The writerly advice of “Show, don’t tell” hinges upon readers’ willingness and ability to receive a complex ordering of images. And this interaction makes literature possible. One critic says readers authenticate the truthfulness of a poem or story through their own memories and imagination. Poetry shocks us into a recognition of the world and helps renew our lost, or maybe, lapsed capacity to feel.

Today’s poem turns a single image of a majestic flight of birds into an array of possible images. The mind rapidly associates, such that making mental pictures becomes a kinetic process. The poem works through via negativa, that is, it shrewdly forwards our imagination by stating what a flock of birds is not.

Egrets (in memory of Barry Lopez)
by Ralph Black

It’s good, he said, the way memory
sometimes slips a gauzy film
between the then and the now,

so that the egrets you’re sure you saw
flapping over the traffic, just above
the parking structure in the Bronx

where you were walking how many
summer mornings ago, the city’s hum
dialing up, the smell of bread from

a bakery, or a bakery truck hacking
spumes of diesel, and three or four
egrets like luffed sails, remaking

incongruity, there they were, and are
still, egrets and not bedsheets tossed
from a high window, three or four, six or

eight egrets and not strewn confetti, not
scraps of notebook paper a city wind
dazzles again into birds, bright flashes

hovering between bird-dream and
reverie of bird, silhouette, intaglio,
origami shadows igniting a city street

and, too, your memory alit and catching,
sometimes, from the corner of an eye
that sudden buffeting flight.

“Egrets (In Memory of Barry Lopez)” by Ralph Black. Used by permission of the poet.