Roethke’s Delerium of Birds

I’m sometimes convinced that college is wasted on young people; they’re simply not ready to appreciate much of the literature they’re exposed to in college classes. Perhaps a better alternative would be to require adults to attend a year of classes after they’ve had kids and worked for 20 years or so. By then they might be ready to appreciate ideas they would have totally missed when younger.

I do remember reading “The Waking” while in college, probably because I was raised in the Pacific Northwest and have always been excited when the “sun was out.”


I strolled across
An open field;
The sun was out;
Heat was happy.

This way! This way!
The wren’s throat shimmered,
Either to other,
The blossoms sang.

The stones sang,
The little ones did,
And flowers jumped
Like small goats.

A ragged fringe
Of daisies waved;
I wasn’t alone
In a grove of apples.

Far in the wood
A nestling sighed;
The dew loosened
Its morning smells.

I came where the river
Ran over stones:
My ears knew
An early joy.

And all the waters
Of all the streams
Sang in my veins
That summer day.

I’ve always been in tune with nature as far back as I can remember, but I’m pretty sure I would have missed the shimmering of the wren’s throat, the sigh of the nestling, and the singing of the blossoms. Of course, as a sophisticated college student I would probably have been too embarrassed to admit that these kinds of things “sang in my veins” on a sunny summer day.

I would have totally missed the point of this poem, though.


Here in our aging district the wood pigeon lives with us,
His deep-throated cooing part of the early morning,
Far away, close-at-hand, his call floating over the on-coming traffic,
The lugubriously beautiful plaint uttered at regular intervals,
A protest from the past, a reminder.

They sit, three or four, high in the fir-trees back of the house,
Flapping away heavily when a car blasts too close,
And one drops down to the garden, the high rhododendron,
Only to fly over to his favorite perch, the cross-bar of a telephone pole;
Grave, hieratic, a piece of Assyrian sculpture,
A thing carved of stone or wood, with the dull iridescence of long-polished wood,
Looking at you without turning his small head,
With a round vireo’s eye, quiet and contained,
Part of the landscape.

And the Steller jay, raucous, sooty headed, lives with us,
Conducting his long wars with the neighborhood cats,
All during mating season,
Making a racket to wake the dead,
To distract attention from the short-tailed ridiculous young ones
Hiding deep in the blackberry bushes—
What a scuttling and rapping along the drainpipes,
A fury of jays, diving and squawking,
When our spayed female cat yawns and stretches out in the sunshine—
And the wrens scold, and the chickadees frisk and frolic,
Pitching lightly over the high hedgerows, dee-deeing,
And the ducks near Lake Washington waddle down the highway after a rain,
Stopping traffic, indignant as addled old ladies,
Pecking at crusts and peanuts, their green necks glittering;
And the hummingbird dips in and around the quince tree,
Veering close to my head,
Then whirring off sideways to the top of the hawthorn,
Its almost-invisible wings, buzzing, hitting the loose leaves intermittently—

A delirium of birds!
Peripheral dippers come to rest on the short grass,
Their heads jod-jodding like pigeons;
The gulls, the gulls far from their waves
Rising, wheeling away with harsh cries,
Coming down on a patch of lawn:

It is neither spring nor summer: it is Always,
With towhees, finches, chickadees, California quail, wood doves,
With wrens, sparrows, juncos, cedar waxwings, flickers,
With Baltimore orioles, Michigan bobolinks,
And those birds forever dead,
The passenger pigeon, the great auk, the Carolina paraquet,
All birds remembered, O never forgotten!
All in my yard, of a perpetual Sunday,
All morning! All morning!

Heck, I probably wouldn’t have been ready for this poem even if I’d gone back to college after 20 years of teaching, though perhaps it would have turned me on to birding many years before I actually started doing so.

It makes perfect sense to me, now, though. My yard isn’t large enough or remote enough to attract all the birds Roethke lists here, but I feel blessed when I’m walking in a place where this happens. I’m attracted to bird sanctuaries for precisely this reason. Nothing delights me quite as much as a “delerium of birds.” There are special moments in my life when I’ve been out walking for awhile surrounded by the chatter of birds underfoot and overhead and I lose myself entirely in the moment, when that moment feels like “Always,” and I feel like I’m in perfect harmony with nature — I’m one with Nature.

Another Look at Theodore Roethke

One of the writers Joan Halifax mentioned in Fruitful Darkness was Theodore Roethke, and since I’ve wanted to re-read his poetry for a while now, I decided this would be a good time to do so. I decided to buy the Kindle version of his poems which contains a number of poems not found in the various editions of his poetry that I already own.

I didn’t remember many of the early poems in the Kindle edition, but I was as impressed by this sequence as I was the first time I read it (so impressed that “Cuttings (later)” was one of the few poems I have ever memorized) .


Sticks-in-a-drowse droop over sugary loam,
Their intricate stem-fur dries;
But still the delicate slips keep coaxing up water;
The small cells bulge;
One nub of growth
Nudges a sand-crumb loose,
Pokes through a musty sheath
Its pale tendrilous horn.

I’m sure when I first read these poems at 18 that I had never identified plant life with human life, much less with my own life, and the fact that I read these poems long before I ever saw time-lapse photography of plants emerging made them seem all the more remarkable. I’d also forgotten over time how simple and descriptive Roethke’s early poems were. They remind me in many ways of the haiku poetry that I’ve come to love so much. Yet, as simple as the poem is, it reminds us how tenuous, how precious, life really is.

Although “Cuttings” could easily refer just to plant life, it’s obvious from “Cuttings(later)

CUTTINGS (later)

This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks,
Cut stems struggling to put down feet,
What saint strained so much,
Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?

I can hear, underground, that sucking and sobbing,
In my veins, in my bones I feel it,—
The small waters seeping upward,
The tight grains parting at last.
When sprouts break out,
Slippery as fish,
I quail, lean to beginnings, sheath-wet.

that Roethke identifies the struggle of the cuttings with man’s struggles, particularly with his own life. At a dark time in his life, Roethke sees the “resurrection of dry sticks” as a sign of possible transcendence, or, at the very least, the ability to go on when calamity befalls us. Cut off from their previous life, cuttings struggle to begin a new life, saint like in their efforts to reemerge. Can man do any less?

Even under the darkest of conditions, a condition that Roethke seemed all too familiar with, life refuses to cease, as shown in a latter poem:


Nothing would sleep in that cellar, dank as a ditch,
Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark,
Shoots dangled and drooped,
Lolling obscenely from mildewed crates,
Hung down long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes.
And what a congress of stinks!—
Roots ripe as old bait,
Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich,
Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks.
Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.

This poem seems to foreshadow the even darker poems in part IV of “The Lost Sons and Other Poems,” particularly “The Lost Son.” Considering that the point of having a root cellar is to to store food for the winter and suppress growth, it’s not surprising that anything grown under those conditions would be distorted. What is most remarkable is that “nothing would give up life.”

Red-Breasted Mergansers

It’s definitely winter here in the Pacific Northwest. Even though we had some bitterly cold, clear days, the weather has been predominantly grey and wet, with little chance to get out birding, especially if you’re mostly interested in photographs. That just means that I’m even more anxious to get out on days when the weather does cooperate, especially since there are birds wintering here that are only here for a short time and will be long gone by the time better weather arrives.

I’ve long since given up trying to list “favorites,” because more often than not my favorite bird is the one in front of me, particularly if its in its breeding colors. Right now, around here the Red-Breasted Mergansers, like this pair, stand out.
The male is hard to confuse with any other duck when it’s in full mating colors.

Red-Breasted Merganser pair

I can never tell if I’m amused, or just impressed by that head, but it’s hard not to focus on it in the shots I take.

Red-Breasted Merganser

You don’t really get too long to get a shot, though, because once they realize you’re focusing on them they disappear,

Merganser diving

sometimes to emerge right in front of you with a fresh shrimp entrée.

Merganser with shrimp

Inevitably, though, I find myself focusing on the male, trying to capture

Red-Breasted Merganser

that beauty, if only for a fraction of a second, which seems almost forever.

Common Goldeneye

Just before my recent trip to Santa Rosa I was asking John if he had seen any Common Goldeneyes, because all I had been seeing lately was Barrow’s Goldeneyes. When I started birding not long ago I thought I was much more apt to see Common Goldeneye than Barrow’s Goldeneye. In fact, I had considered it a treat to finally see a Barrow’s Goldeneye. He replied that he had seen some, though not as many as he’d seen Barrow’s Goldeneye.

Strangely enough, I spotted a Common Goldeneye on Spring Lake in Santa Rosa, the first I could remember ever seeing there. There was actually a pair of them, but I didn’t manage to get a shot of the female as she ducked under the water every time I pointed a camera their way.

male Common Goldeneye

The first time I returned to Theler Wetlands after my California visit I spotted a Goldeneye out on the river,

male Common Goldeneye

and, sure enough, it turned out to be a male Goldeneye.

Just to make sure that I didn’t fail to make their notice, I saw two more at Port Orchard, quite close to the parking area.

male Common Goldeneye

I wonder whether they’d always been there all along and I had just missed them, if they’d been gone but recently returned, or whether I had somehow conjured them up. It’s surprising how often you see something once you start looking specifically for it. I did notice, though, that the Common Goldeneye were almost always alone or a single pair unlike the small flocks of Barrow’s Goldeneye I’ve been seeing regularly at Port Orchard and locally on Ruston Way.