Kenyon’s Highs and Lows

When I was an undergraduate and devoted to poetry, I used to wish I could see the world with the kind of “romantic” extremes my favorite poets did. I knew that wasn’t to be, though, when I was introduced to Aristotle’s Golden Mean in a freshman philosophy class. I knew immediately that that was the guiding principle in my life, a realization confirmed in later life with my fondness for Taoism’s Yin and Yang and Buddha’s Middle Way. That doesn’t mean that, at times, I don’t still admire poets who can see the world in all of its extremes in ways I can barely imagine.

Though Kenyon’s poetry tends to see the world through the darker side of her bipolar vision more often than the light side, she is still capable of allowing the reader to literally see the bright side of life.

Philosophy in Warm Weather

Now all the doors and Windows

are open, and we move so easily

through the rooms. Cats roll

on the sunny rugs, and a clumsy wasp

climbs the pane, pausing

to rub a leg over her head.

All around physical life reconvenes.

The molecules of our bodies must love

to exist: they whirl in circles

and seem to begrudge us nothing.

Heat, Horatio, heat makes them

put this antic disposition on!

This year’s brown spider

sways over the door as I come

and go. A single poppy shouts

from the far field, and the crow,

beyond alarm, goes right on

pulling up the corn.

There is a natural ease about this poem that seems impossible to deny. We’ve all felt free and easy on a warm summer day. My favorite image in the poem, probably because I would never in a million years have thought of using it, is “The molecules of our bodies must love/ to exist: they whirl in circles/ and seem to begrudge us nothing.” Such joy is not just in our mind; it pervades us a the molecular level. We can’t help but be happy.

Rain in January is much more typical of Kenyon’s poetry as a whole, and is a poem I can identify with living here in the Pacific Northwest where we are in the midst of two weeks of unusually heavy rain, likely to extend into mid-June.

Rain in January

I woke before dawn, still
in a body. Water ran
down every window, and rushed
from the eaves.

Beneath the empty feeder
a skunk was prowling for suet
or seed. The lamps flickered off
and then came on again.

Smoke from the chimney
could not rise. It came down
into the yard, and brooded there
in the unlikelihood of reaching

heaven. When my arm slipped
from the arm of the chair
I let it hang beside me, pale,
useless and strange.

I’ve been known to let extended rainy periods get me down and force me to make cynical pronouncements, but luckily I have only felt as bad as the narrator when I’m befallen by thyroid cancer, throat cancer, prostate cancer, or serious bouts of pneumonia. Which is to say that, despite my generally optimistic view of the world, I can, unfortunately, still identify with the poet’s condition. As I suppose most of us can.

I suspect it was not just the smoke that “brooded there/in the unlikelihood of reaching/heaven.” It’s bad enough to feel alienated from heaven, but it’s much worse to be alienated from your body, from a “useless and strange” arm.

Jane Kenyon’s Collected Poems

I finished reading Jane Kenyon’s Collected Poems awhile ago, but haven’t found time to write about it, perhaps because it is one of my favorite “new” (to me, at least) poetry books of the last ten years and I didn’t want to just gloss over it.

I loved her early poems (published in 1978), which reminded me of William Carlos Williams’ imagistic poetry.

Finding a Long Gray Hair

I scrub the long floorboards
in the kitchen, repeating
the motions of other women
who have lived in this house.
And when I find a long gray hair
floating in the pail,
I feel my life added to theirs

It’s amazing how much these straight-forward images convey. Almost everything here could be conveyed in a two-minute video, black-and-white, of course. It’s the last line, though, that raises this to a poem since there’s no easy way to express that joining visually, much less convey whether having her “life added to theirs” is a good thing or a bad thing, though I did enough janitorial work while attending college to conjecture that it’s not entirely a good thing.

At first glance “The Clothes Pin” seems more optimistic than many of her poems, but its impossible to ignore the underlying sadness conveyed in the third line.

The Clothes Pin

How much better it is
to carry wood to the fire
than to moan about your life.
How much better
to throw the garbage
onto the compost heap, or to pin the clean
sheet on the line
with a gray-brown wooden clothes pin.

Sometimes you can forget the sadness in your life by focusing on what has to be done as Kenyon seems to imply here, but in the end you probably need to do more than carry firewood, throw out the garbage, or hang clothes on the clothesline to find happiness.

A little later, her poems reminded me of Theodore Roethke’s poetry. Kenyon was bipolar, and it is manifested in her poetry the same way it was in Roethke’s poetry. There seem to be an awful lot of bipolar poets, but Kenyon directly alludes to Roethke in several of her poems, as in this one.

Afternoon in the House

It’s quiet here. The cats
sprawl, each
in a favored place.
The geranium leans this way
to see if I’m writing about her:
head all petals, brown
stalks, and those green fans.
So you see,
I am writing about you.

I turn on the radio. Wrong.

Let’s not have any noise
in this room, except
the sound of a voice reading a poem.

The cats request

The Meadow Mouse by Theodore Roethke.

The house settles down on its haunches
for a doze.

I know you are with me, plants,

and cats—and even so, I’m frightened,

sitting in the middle of perfect

Kenyon refers directly to Roethke’s The Meadow Mouse but Roethke lovers would certainly see a closer connection to Roethke’s The Geranium. These lines from “The Geranium” seem particularly relevant here: ‘Near the end, she seemed almost to hear me--/ And that was scary--” Almost as scary as “sitting in the middle of perfect/ possibility,” I’d imagine.

Are these Greater or Lesser?

Part of the fun — and frustration — of birding is trying to identify a bird you’re not familiar with. I knew as soon as I sighted this bird that I didn’t know what it was, though it looked vaguely familiar, like a student you had in class twenty years ago. That white spot next to the beak was pretty distinctive, though, and I thought that would make it easy to identify once I got to a birding book. It didn’t help, of course, that the spot didn’t look the same on all the birds.

At first, I actually misidentified the bird, thinking it was Blue-Winged Teal though I couldn’t see any blue wing. Eventually, though, I decided it was probably a Greater Scaup. It didn’t help, of course, that there wasn’t a single male in the flock, and males Scaups are much more distinctive than female Scaups.


Actually, this shot was the one that convinced me that it couldn’t be a Blue-Winged Teal, because Blue-Winged Teal don’t have an all white breast like this.


It never hurts to see the bird next to a more familiar bird and get an accurate appraisal of its size. Buffleheads are one of the smaller ducks.


But it was this shot that finally convinced me it couldn’t be Blue-Winged Teal because Blue-Winged Teals are “dabblers,” which means it’s unlikely they would dive like this.


The book I used to identify this as a female Greater Scaup doesn’t show a female Lesser Scaup, which, as it turns out, looks very similar to a female Greater Scaup, though the feathers on the back tend to be whiter.

Until one of my readers who is a better birder tells me otherwise, I’m going to say these are shots of female Greater Scaup.

Sea Birds Are Back at Port Orchard

After I left Theler Wetlands Wednesday I went to the Port Orchard Marina hoping to see some sea ducks. The lack of sea ducks at Owens Beach and Ruston, particularly the lack of Goldeneye and Scoters, has begun to concern me. Despite its external beauty, Puget Sound has suffered for years from increased pollution, resulting in fewer birds overwintering here. It’s hard to know whether this year’s lack of sea birds is the result of a lingering summer or lack of food for the birds. On my last trip to Port Orchard the only birds I saw were gulls and a single cormorant.

I felt a little reassured when I was greeted by this female Hooded Merganser as I entered the marina.


This male Red-Breasted Merganser wasn’t actually in the marina, but it was close enough that I could capture a shot of it.


I wonder if it’s the same one I tracked so often last year trying to get a shot of it in flight.

T here still weren’t many Horned Grebes, but there was a single bird in the center of the marina that was willing to be photographed.


I didn’t see a single Goldeneye in the marina, but there was a small flock a ways off the end of the dock.


I wondered if the high tide was keeping the Goldeneye and Surf Scoters off shore. During low tide the barnacles they seem to favor are much more exposed.

It was reassuring to know that I can once again end my mid-week birding trip with a Chili

Relleno and Leslie and I can end our weekend trip with a stop at Amy’s without feeling like I’ve driven too far out of the way.

A Perfect Fall Walk

As I headed out for yesterday’s birding walk at Theler Wetlands, it was an overcast 43˚, with clouds occasionally reaching ground level. The perfect day for a Fall walk, especially after being trapped in the house for nearly a week. When my fingers got cold, I walked a little faster; when sweat got trapped inside my GoreTex jacket, I slowed down. It was a great 6 mile day.

I was immediately reminded how long since I’ve been here by the shotgun blasts echoing across the wetlands. Hunting season is again upon us. Despite this inauspicious welcome to the refuge, I was cheered when I focused on a pair of distant white birds and realized that they had to be Swans, not the gulls I had originally thought they were.


I’ve never seen swans at Theler before, so that single sighting probably made my day, though I wasn’t unhappy to see the usual residents, like this Belted Kingfisher on his accustomed perch,


or this Great Blue Heron stalking the sloughs.


With most of the leaves fallen, the beautiful moss and ferns are even harder to ignore than they are during summer.


I really didn’t expect to see the swans when I returned but there turned out to be a small flock of six swans who obliged my be taking off nearly directly toward me


and then gradually turning northward as they left.


It would have been hard to imagine a better ending to my Theler visit.

An Owens Beach Walk

Lots of rain and feeling tired after my recent bout with the flu have kept me from doing much local birding. I haven’t been back to Belfair since I returned from Colorado though I’m hoping the weather will hold off tomorrow morning and I’ll be feeling well enough to get a walk in. All I’ve managed to do lately is fit in a couple short walks on Owens Beach, and there aren’t many birds there yet.

I did get buzzed by one of the local Bald Eagle residents,


and this Sea Lion paralleled much of my walk.


When I took this shot I thought I was looking at a Cormorant, but once I saw it on-screen it was obviously a Common Loon, a rather unusual sighting at Owens beach, perhaps because the water is shallow enough that the loons stay considerably off shore.


This is the first time I’ve ever seen Killdeer on my beach walk.


When you’ve been trapped in the house for over a week, even an hour walk on the beach can be mentally refreshing.

I’ll have to admit that the Prednisone and antibiotics they gave me for my Pneumonia may have made me feel better than I actually was. After I stopped taking the Prednisone, I suddenly felt awfully tired and have had to resort to over-the-counter pain relievers to make it through the day. I’m sure that a day birding without getting rained on would go a long ways toward lifting my spirits.

Timing is all

I’d nearly forgotten what a disaster my recent trip to Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge was until I looked back at the photos I’d taken there. You know the trip is a disaster when the pictures you took between Colorado and the refuge are better than the ones you took at the refuge.

My best shot of the day is probably this one of an antelope I took in the parking lot of a in-the-middle-of-nowhere gas station in Wyoming.


I also like this shot of the cliffs you see as you drop down into Utah.


I had originally planned on spending two days at Bear River, an early evening visit and an early morning visit. However, I was a little surprised to see how little water there was in the refuge. This barren field with its single Great Blue Heron was full of birds, and water, when I’d visited the site in early summer.


My favorite shot was this one of a Pied Grebe in the golden evening light.


I’d never seen so few birds at the refuge, even when I visited it last year after our Colorado Thanksgiving trip. Clark’s Grebes


and Western Grebes were the most numerous species, but there weren’t many of them.


The only saving grace was the beautiful light from the sinking sun.

Though the refuge was lacking in birds, it more than made up for that lack in the sheer number of mosquitoes per square foot. I managed to get dozens of mosquito bites despite the use of air conditioning and hurricane-force fans blowing directly at the open window. In fact, I ended up fighting trapped mosquitoes the whole next day.

I wondered if I had just been there at the wrong time of day, but after I got home I was reading a Utah blogger whose site I follow, and he managed to get even less birds than I did a few days earlier.

“Timing is all” is a common saying among birders, and that was never truer than on this trip. Despite becoming a “go-to destination,” I’ll try to remember to avoid Bear River in October and go another way home.