A woman on a November morning is watching a squirrel beneath her window. In a small patch of dirt and grass and sunshine she sees him foraging. If asked she would be hard pressed to describe the color of his fur. It is a shifting landscape of grey, brown, white and black. His tail is a dancing plume. Everything about him is quick, alert, vigorous. He is alive, she thinks to herself, in a way that it is hard to be alive if you have been sitting in front of a screen much of the day instead of sprinting up and down tree trunks scouting out the choicest acorns and burying them in secret caches. Every so often he stands up on his hind legs and looks around to ensure that neither the government nor the blue jays are spying on him. [Just to be safe he relocates his stash a couple of times]. When he stands up, his front paws that functioned until that moment as legs, instantly become hands. In this stance he looks, astonishingly, like a little person. He picks things up, examines and eats them in a way that is quite human. But his jaw works more rapidly than any person alive. She marvels at his resourcefulness and pragmatism. This ability to find food in backyard flora and the foresight he has to put aside a portion of it for leaner times. She has read that squirrels, while admirably meticulous about burying their acorns, have a less than impeccable track record when it comes to retrieval. Lost in the myriad details of the squirrely life they are known to foolishly forget where they left their loot, in the way that humans stumbling out of airports and shopping malls, have trouble remembering where they parked their cars. But squirrel hoarding is not the same as human hoarding. Squirrels for instance have not been known to open Swiss bank accounts or shop at Costco. Also their hoarding habits frequently result in the birth of oak trees. It can be said with reasonable surety that human hoarding has yet to yield any such magnificent outcomes. And it occurs to her suddenly that human greed and negligence have destroyed forests that the squirrels’ acquisitive and forgetful nature helped plant. And it is at this precise moment that the squirrel beneath her window looks up. With a gaze so clear-eyed, vibrant, and empty of accusation, that she feels at once chastened and forgiven on behalf of her kind.
I wish you could have seen her as I did, in the early morning light. A little bird perched on the rearview mirror of our parked car. Alone and utterly unaware of her audience. She tips her body over the edge and for a brief moment thoughtfully surveys herself upside down. Then shoots up into the air like a firecracker, a feathered bundle of urgency, and attempts to fly directly into her reflection. Over and over again she repeats this sequence of steps. Undaunted by the obdurate glass or her head-on failure. Perhaps the sight of the slight, bright-eyed being in the mirror has moved her to admiration and compassion. “Don’t worry you beautiful creature,” she seems to be saying, “I see you — and I am coming to get you!” Standing there, I am captivated by how captivated she is by the bird-in-the-glass. How fiercely determined she is to make contact, to establish a birdly bond with the mythical “other”. She is oblivious to the situation’s impossibility. And I wonder if she is getting dizzy in the head. I wonder what her beak is made of. I wonder if she is driven by loneliness, nobility or a bit of both. “You sweet, silly bird!” I whisper. Close to an hour later she is still at it. And I wonder suddenly, what would happen, if you could catch a glimpse of yourself in this world and not know that it was you. I believe you too would be transfixed by the fragile beauty you saw. I believe you too would try, against reason and hope, to befriend the breathing miracle that you are.
This morning I looked out of the window just in time to see a dive bombing blue jay. The sight impressed me greatly. The way he dropped from a high tree branch, streaking like a small comet or a superhero. Swooping upward only at the very last possible second. Because he did not appear to have one, I gave him a name. I called him: Reckless Abandon. It suits him well. This daring, winged creature. I believe he is destined to be famous in my world. For he showed me how flying can look alarmingly like falling. He showed me too, how too full of reck I am. How reluctant to abandon anything. Why? he demanded to know. This blue strident bird. I had no answer. But one day, old, time-wizened, happy, I will look out the window. Ready to leave my perch. I will remember the flight of Reckless Abandon. And how it changed everything
The poetry of porcupines is widely misunderstood — as most prickly things are. With the exception of roses. The reputation of the rose has always famously transcended its thorns.Perhaps because of the way it holds its silken package of petals up to the sky. Like a peace offering folded into origami-perfect whorls. Also the delicate perfume it issues like a benediction. These charms move us easily to love and forgiveness. But the porcupine is not possessed of such petals or perfume. Its bundle of bristles and their broadcasted stench are not for the faint of heart. Therein lies the problem. Too many of us are faint of heart. Too easily filled with fear and distaste we flee too soon from prickly things. And so we lose the chance to gaze into a pair of mild, short-sighted eyes (eyes sweet as the petals of a rose are soft). We lose our shot at a transformative glimpse. Into the deep gentleness that dwells in earth’s magnificent, misconstrued beings. A gentleness as real (if not real-er) than their quills.
The poetry of Coleman Barks is the poetry of a face that reminds me of the relationship between the wind and an old bluff. Or the relationship between a fallen log in the forest, the moss that grows over it and the insects that drill holes into its sides. I say this with admiration. Looking at him the phrase weathered face makes sudden and vivid sense. It is hard not to be drawn to a face like that. The way it is hard not to be drawn to a snow-capped mountain or a gorge. I take note of his grizzled white beard, reminiscent of Santa Claus, and also his unkempt hair. These things endear him to me because Santa is an endearing figure and kempt hair has eluded me all my life. When he speaks his voice is slow and heavy, yet musical like a rain-cloud. Or like an old poet whose bones are given to aching when it is the season for rain-clouds. When he utters the name of his hometown, Chattanooga, Tennessee it makes me happy. All those double consonant and double vowel sounds. Delicious as a spoonful of ice cream under the midday sun.
When he was a boy of six Coleman Barks memorized all the countries and capitals in the 1943 Rand McNally atlas. In the evenings as he crossed the quadrangle to the dining hall his teachers would shout country names into the darkening air. “Uruguay?” one might cry out, “Montevideo,” the boy Barks would call back not missing a beat. “Bulgaria?”, “Sophia.” “Mongolia?” “Ulan Bator.” Perfect answers every time…until his Latin teacher decided enough was enough, and dug up from his basement the name of a country not found on any map he knew of. And the next evening as the undisputed Boy Champion of Countries & their Capitals crossed the quadrangle, a name he had never heard before flew into the air above him like a prophecy, “CAPPADOCIA?” … silence….and a look on the boy’s face that his teacher would say named him forever. The man we know as Coleman Barks goes by “Cap” short for Cappadocia in his hometown. “What I did not know, named me,” he says serious and smiling. Years later he would learn that the capital of Cappadocia was Ikonium, also known as Konya. The place where Rumi lived and now lies buried.
“What I did not know, named me.” And perhaps, one thinks, wisdom is but that which arises from our perfectly embraced ignorance.
It is sobering to consider that had I been assigned to browse through the faces of the world’s poets looking for Rumi’s translator, had I been assigned to identify the genie that emancipated his poems with their fast-beating hearts, from their ‘scholarly cages’, I might not have picked Coleman Barks out from the crowd. No. Foolishly I might have looked for someone slender and lithe, someone with dark hair and a face like pale moonlight. The kind of face one might imagine shining steadily above whirling feet and wide white skirts. I fear I might have sought out someone who looks the way Rumi’s poetry sounds. Instead of someone capable of bending the bars of scholarly cages with work-roughened hands. Someone capable of coaxing long-captive birds into flight again with music that rumbles forth from the mountain of his soul. Unstoppable and inexplicable as spring.
Let that then be a lesson to me. May that which I do not see always name me.
The poetry of sisters begins long before memory and the giving of names. First kinship that finds you braids histories under a bright sun. A fierce love grows up unnoticed. Quietly forgives your unkindest moments calls out your quirks jumps for your joy. And always — always speaks truth to your power. The poetry of sisters is a closeness swifter than time & all talk. Intricate mystery of bones that know ache rejoice for another in ways no other ever will.
The poetry of fawn is dappled. Brown creature of snow-flecked sides, ginger footsteps and crooked legs unacquainted with their own agility. Given to soft, nervous interrogation. Studies each leaf, each blade of grass, pedestrian and leashed dog with equal parts apprehension & astonishment, as if to ask, “What new and awfully wondrous thing are you? A tender willingness to be surprised that will never be outgrown.