Pushcart 2015: Mary Szybist, “Too Many Pigeons to Count and One Dove” (Poem) from her collection, Incarnadine (Graywolf Press 2013)

—3:21                                The startled ash tree
                                                        alive with them, wings facing
                             through silver-green leaves – jumping
—3:24                                from branch to branch
                             they rattle the leaves, or make the green leaves
                                           sound dry –

Thank goodness – a poem I can do something with! I was getting a little worried there. Of course, I might not understand it in the way Szybist intended, or in the way poetry-people understand it, but in my own fashion I see many interesting aspects. The text isn’t available online (unless you’re very determined and google a line, hint hint) but there is an author’s recording.

I find recordings in general, and this one in particular, to be less than ideal, however. That’s strange, since poems are meant to be read aloud. I do indeed read all these poems out loud, and I agree that something is lost if poetry is not heard – but poems are also visual if they are distributed in print, so I think something is also lost if the poem is not seen. Especially in this case.

The first thing a reader would notice, even perhaps before reading the words, is a set of numbers at the beginning of each stanza. “—3:21” reads the first; the second, “—3:24”. I’ve done my best to reproduce the poem visually, but I’m not sure I got it right, not sure I could get it right, given my HTML limitations. But – is the dash to the left is an em-dash, or is it longer? And then: am I making too much out of a dash? I mercilessly ridiculed a Harvard MOOC for the professor’s agonizing overanalysis of the relative lengths of Emily Dickinson’s handwritten dashes, the possible meanings behind them, how they were translated into type. So what am I doing?

I’m not sure. But it’s fun, so I’m going to keep doing it.

The numbers are probably most easily recognized as time stamps: they initially increase in small increments, three minutes, two minutes, one minute, then the last third of the poem all takes place at 3:33. Imagine reading this poem in that time frame. Take a full three minutes to read the first stanza. Let the second stanza stretch over two minutes, and so forth, and then read the last seven stanzas quickly enough to all fit into the span of one minute. It’s a different poem.

If I can bring in a ludicrously incongruous pop culture reference (with all that modernist talk of refusing to distinguish between high culture and low culture, have I pushed it too far?), I thought of Data reading Doosodarian poetry with its embedded lacunae, pauses in which the reader was to reflect on the emptiness of the experience. Here, the poet conveys the sense of watching the birds over time – yet the first stanza, stretching over three minutes of time, includes some of the most active verbs of the poem: startled, alive, lacing, jumping. Take a look again at the first stanza: how would you read that stanza over three minutes’ time?

There’s also the sense of time speeding up, as the time intervals grow shorter and shorter. Does the time indicate something about the speaker’s thought pattern, leisurely at first, perhaps bored, that boredom measured by the frequency of looks at her watch, or, more contemporarily, her cell phone – perhaps waiting, hoping for an incoming call? – needing something to do, something more active. By the time the speaker says, “I am tired / of paying attention” we’re at the point where seven stanzas bear the same digits, 3:33. Is this an attention span thing, or confusion? Is it tied to the content – because, while the poem is ostensibly about watching birds flitting around trees, it’s of course about much more than that. Has the underlying content become too predominant to be overlain with birdwatching?

This was my biggest disappointment with the recording: not only are the timestamps not indicated (which at the very) but there was no difference in the reading of the poem. Far be it from me to tell a poet how to read her own work, but if you’re going to put time stamps on a poem, shouldn’t a reading reflect that?

But wait: what if it’s not hours:minutes but minutes:seconds? It’s only the tyranny of the clock that suggests the former; would not a stopwatch more commonly indicate the second? Imagine the poem read at that pace, all 19 stanzas in a span of 12 seconds. It’s a different poem: now it becomes a thought, and a quick one at that, jumping from one thing to another, bird-like.

And that’s only if the numbers are taken as time stamps, with the em-dashes as visual markers. What if the dashes are instead minus signs? Is the sequence running backwards? No, that’s ridiculous; but this dwelling-in-possibility stuff requires that I think about it, and just because I can’t see anything the numbers could be besides time stamps, doesn’t mean that’s what they must be.

The line indents seem to create a kind of fluttering. As the birds jump from branch to branch, tree to tree, so do my eyes jump from line to line and stanza to stanza, until I come to this:

—3:29                   Nothing stays long enough to know.
                              How long since we’ve been inside
                                                        anything together the way
—3:29                               these birds are inside
                             this tree together, shifting, making it into
                                                                  a shivering thing?

Now there’s a lacuna to reflect on. How long do we stay? How often do we give up before we know? And here’s where the speaker first connects birds in a tree to some relationship. The stanza begins with a complete sentence on a line. The grammar, the line, the meaning, stays long enough for us to know. This only happens three times in this poem, a complete sentence on a line, and two of them are sounds: a boat horn and a church bell. A warning and a summons? Why is a church bell sounding at 3:30 anyway, does that time have some religious significance on this day, does it routinely ring every half hour, is it a wedding or funeral? Is that what makes her miss, or not-miss, someone?

That connection continues, as she looks at birds again, so many bird antics that seem made for relational analogies – wings seem tangled but pull apart, far and near, not touching, seems caught, flapping violently, tilts down – while the poignant “I cannot find / a picture of you in my mind”, the only rhyme in the poem, so clear a rhyme it must be intentional, but why that rhyme, why there, in the middle of all this bird-fluttering observation? This is what lies at the core of the poem, while the speaker looks at the birds that keep flitting in the trees.

The word “dove” appears for the first time in the middle of the poem, when the speaker notes: “I cannot find the dove, / have not seen it for minutes.” For minutes – in this poem with time stamps. I wonder if this is a pun on “four minutes”, and, occurring in a stanza marked 3:32, hearkens back to the stanza at 3:28, in which “One just there on the low branch – / gone before I can breathe or / describe it” – is that the dove, undescribed? Is that the being inside the tree together making it shiver, gone so quickly, there wasn’t time to reflect?

And by the way – what’s the difference between pigeons and doves? I’m no ornithologist, but a quick google confirms what I’d always heard: they’re more or less the same. We think of doves as pure and white and peaceful, while we think of pigeons as dirty and ugly and annoying, but the distinction between them is nebulous. I can see a relationship analogy in that: we think of love as something glorious and soul-changing, but it’s also about forgiveness and tolerance and patience, and maybe staying long enough to know. Like pigeons and doves, the space between love and not-love can be indistinct.

When the speaker says:

                                                                       ….why do I miss you
—3:33                                           now, but not now,
                                          my old idea of you, the feeling for you I lost
                             and remade so many times until it was
—3:33                                something else, as strange as your touch
                             was familiar….

…she’s provided enough cues that I understand: the sense of flux, of flitting, of time being something other than what’s measured on a clock, of appearances and reality being different things.

Oh, and by the way, line breaks. The line breaks in general make the poem flittery fluttery, flying from branch to branch. Another one I like in particular is in the first two stanzas, quoted above: “– jumping / / from branch to branch”, the line break jumping just as the bird does. Nice. And, borrowing a point I learned from Ken Nichols at Great Writers Steal, this teaches us how to read the poem.

But there’s more to line breaks: meaning evolves as we jump from one branch to the next, from one word to the next. “Why do I miss you” is one thing. “Why do I miss you / now” is another: I shouldn’t still miss you, or why now and not before, or what is it about this moment, watching birds chase from one tree to the next, what’s the difference between those trees, those branches – how long it took the speaker to understand the birds were feeding, how long it takes us to understand someone is being nourished, nurtured, because it doesn’t look that way to us. The “Why do I miss you / now, but not now;” is yet a third thing: is it that in the seconds it has taken her to go from one thought to the other, from one branch to the other, the missing is gone?

I like a poem that interests me enough to raise questions. Are these important questions? The center of the poem seems to be the relationship the flitting birds bring to mind. Typography, church bells, line breaks, does any of it matter? Of course. If Szybist just wanted to say, “In a relationship, you have regrets and wonder what went wrong,” that would’ve been a tweet. This is a poem. Everything matters. How it matters, whether it matters enough, is for the reader to decide.

I think it does. Then again, I’m relieved to have a poem I can see something in, after a bit of a dry spell, so I may be overreaching. My favorite sport, overreaching. Incarnadine, a series of reimaginings of the Annunciation, was awarded the National Book Award for Poetry. I’m sure it deserves better (for one thing, I have no idea what this poem could have to do with the Annunciation – have I missed the point completely?); but it makes a nice place to practice.


One response to “Pushcart 2015: Mary Szybist, “Too Many Pigeons to Count and One Dove” (Poem) from her collection, Incarnadine (Graywolf Press 2013)

  1. Pingback: Goodnight, Pushcart | A Just Recompense

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