Harkness’ The Law of the Unforeseen

Hard to believe it was last October that I discussed a poem from Bethany Reid’s Body My House and nearly every post since then has focused on photos of birds. In other words, it is long past time for another poetry post. Bethany recommended Edward Harkness’s The Law of the Unforseen when she mentioned her own book had just been published, and I ordered the two together nearly a year ago.

The blurb in the back of the book said Harkness has forever regretted that he missed seeing Elvis Presley when Elvis visited the Seattle Fair in 1962. I have to admit that I have never regretted missing that, or even his earlier concert in Sicks Stadium, though I was definitely still a Presley fan when I was in high school in ‘62.  Otherwise, though, we seem to have remarkably similar interests and tastes, not to mention views of a disordered world.

As I’ve aged it has been harder to find poets that impress me as much as those I loved when I discovered poets in my senior year in high school and college, like Whitman, Hardy, Yeats, Roethke, Robert PennWarren, or, even, lesser poets like David Wagoner or Mark Strand who I took classes from.  I suspect poets we encounter earlier in life stand out more because they revealed life in new ways. I’m not sure at my age I’m still capable of seeing life in totally new ways, much less welcoming that kind of revelation. 

In short, I’ve learned to appreciate poets that see the world largely the way I do but can put it into words better than I can.  There are several poems that do that in this 115-page collection, but a favorite — perhaps because I have been longing to visit the Malheur or the Sacramento refuge where we see meadowlarks, is:


He’s out there, somewhere, a quarter mile off,
hidden in the crown of that lightning-struck pine.
At this distance, maybe he’s not there, maybe his voice
is there, careening across Rocky Flats, indigoed
with camas and larkspur—wild with shooting star.

His phrases carry from his pine to here,
the ground patched with monk’s hood, cowled
like its name, among lichen-ladened scree.
She I love prowls the near-treeless meadow,
pausing to listen, binoculars aimed,

scanning for bluebirds in the wind-combed grass.
That’s when the long, twisted, complicated notes
come tumbling in a trick of acoustics to fill the expanse.
The pine hunches, blasted one night a hundred years ago,
arthritic now, a misshapen thing persevering

alone with the flowers, stones, wind, droppings
of deer and elk who have heard the same arias
sail out from deep within the green. I tell myself
it's music. It is not music, not in the mind
of a meadowlark. Still, it’s a wondrous sound

nevertheless, a little delirious, the complex notes
alarming in their urgency: I’m alive, you fools!
All that matters are the sun-fringed clouds.
Wake up! All that matters are the sun-fringed clouds.
She I love scans the lightning-struck pine.

Who’s his audience? There it is: the mystery
of poetry. Other meadowlarks, of course. Of course
the stones, the flowers, droppings of deer and elk.
Maybe the lightning-struck pine he’s in, maybe
she I love, blue-parka-ed, her ears cupped to hear.

For me, this poem captures the experience of sighting meadowlarks and adds a dimension my photographs can never quite convey.  My photographs sometimes capture the peak moment of the experience, especially for birders, as in the photo above, but even a series of them never captures the experience itself in quite the way this poem does.  

The opening line, “He’s out there, somewhere…” captures most birders’ experience with meadowlarks.  You hear the meadowlark’s song, know it has to be there, but the only clue you have to where it might be is past experience — which doesn’t count for much.  It seems counterintuitive, but it’s impossible to locate them because the song seems to be coming from all directions, as it fills the “expanse.” You’d think someone singing that beautifully would want their audience to know where the performer is, right? Why else sing so loudly?

All you can do is pick up the binoculars and start looking where it might be. Thankfully, even if you don’t spot the meadowlark, you will see its habitat more clearly than you’ve seen it before. Binoculars, like telephoto lenses, reveal things you would probably never notice otherwise: camas, larkspur, monk’s hood.  

But the experience, like the poem, isn’t just about the meadowlark. It’s about the whole place, the meadowlarks’s part in that place along with the “flowers, stones, wind, droppings/ of deer and elk who have heard the same arias/ sail out from deep within the green.” It’s not just a particular bird that draws us to a place, it’s the place itself that calls us back.  Some birders may chase particular birds, but most of us return week after week, month after month, year after year to special places because those places make us feel as alive as they are.

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