TP: Upon Reading That Eric Dolphy Transcribed Even The Calls of Certain Birds, by John Murillo

I know it’s not Thursday, but the wonderful thing about shortening ‘Thursday Poem’ to TP is that I can get away with posting this on Tuesday. Also, this is my blog. Also, time is meaningless and so are the days of the week. So let’s get straight into this week’s extraordinary poem, with its extra-long title, ‘Upon Reading That Eric Dolphy Transcribed Even the Calls of Certain Species of Bird‘ by John Murillo.

Take a few minutes now to check it out, because I don’t want to ruin it for you. Go on, I’ll wait. I read it myself a couple weeks ago and I’ve been reading it every other day since, not just because I love it, but because to read poetry of this quality is to dowse yourself in the sweet rushing of a spring river. Is to feel the accumulated muck of the day slough off, and god, how I’ve needed that recently.

It begins:

I think first of two sparrows I met when walking home,
late night years ago, in another city, not unlike this — the one

Hardly the most auspicious opening lines ever, but I love the tone of it, the way it sets up this casual, meandering reminiscence – an informality which does nothing to diminish the eloquence of the lines, and everything to elevate it.

If these past few months editing a poetry journal have taught me anything, it’s that people too often place emphasis on lone extravagant words and not enough on the feel, the voice, the rhythm of the thing. All of you need to read Murillo’s poem, study it, truly, to understand that anything woven seamlessly of the same cloth will always outshine and outlast a weave studded erratically with diamond words, as if in the hope their supposed value would somehow rub off on the rest of it.

It’s more than just rhythm and voice here, though Murillo has enough music in this poem to set a barroom to dancing, it’s the efficiency of the lines. Not a word wasted, the pacing impeccable, the sounds building & bouncing off one another–for a poem so melancholic, the effect is positively ecstatic. Or at least, it is in me.

So, we have a set up with sparrows, one bird attacking/alerting the narrator as its mate is trapped nearby in a car door:

They called to me — something between squawk and chirp,
something between song and prayer — to do something,

anything. And, like any good god, I disappeared. Not
indifferent, exactly. But with things to do. And, most likely,

on my way home from another heartbreak. Call it 1997,

Forgive me for only making broad notes, but if I linger over every single magnificent line, I’ll be here forever. I love the narrative flow of the piece, the easy collapse into another time, another scene; it unfolds as a natural thought would, with all the corrections and interjections and digressions that comes with that, and yet despite this, somehow isn’t irritating and isn’t confusing. It’s just that smoothly done.

his widow said he drowned one morning on a fishing trip.

Anyway, I’m digressing. But if you asked that night —
did I mention it was night? — why I didn’t even try

to jimmy the lock to spring the sparrow, I couldn’t say,

‘to jimmy the lock to spring the sparrow’ – pack it up and go home, folks, that’s fucking perfection right there. It straight up dances on the tongue. I bring up this passage not to highlight that line, but because the digressions so frequently mentioned aren’t in fact digressions. This poem endlessly folds in upon itself – some might argue too much, but it’s so well executed I can’t complain – calling back again and again to earlier moments, earlier phrases, sometimes in the same breath, and in so doing, recasting the scene in a different light, recasting the meaning of the line.

As we come to a “random” scene where two shirtless men, lovers or enemies or both, are fighting on the floor–the meaning fluctuating in situ–we learn their tangential relevance to the original moment.

I left/the men where I’d leave the sparrows and their song.
And as I walked away, I heard one of the men call to me,

please or help or brother or some such. And I didn’t break
stride, not one bit. It’s how I’ve learned to save myself.

From here, we drift still further back in time to the original trauma, the moment the poem was waiting for, where the narrator watches his father beat his mother in the street. And here, even without the direct reference to sparrows, you cannot help but think of the scene the poem started with, cannot help but think of trapped wings fluttering against a car door, the desperate futility of it, and his own refusal to help. Such is the power of that moment, it exists in every ripple it casts back in his timeline, or perhaps it’s the other way around.

I think his name was Sonny, runs out from his duplex
to pull my father off. You see where I’m going with this?
My mother crying out, fragile as a sparrow. Sonny
fighting my father, fragile as a sparrow.

There are two callbacks here I want to highlight. One is the obvious sparrow metaphor which I mentioned earlier, and the lovely repetition which, to my mind, removed any gendered reading of its first instance. We are all so fragile, it seems to say, just breakable bones. The second callback is to the line I quoted earlier ‘I didn’t break my stride, not one bit. It’s how I’ve learned to save myself.’

Sonny did the right thing, see. Sonny got beat for it, just like the narrator’s mother. One of the things I admire so much about this poem, as I’ve said before, is its efficacy – it doesn’t linger, preferring instead to echo as it goes. If this is a dance, it’s a fast-stepping one, short sharp words busting the meaning out. From bloodied wrangling in the street, the scene collapses again into an idyllic picnic:

And in this park was a pond, and in this pond were birds.
Not sparrows, but swans. And my father spread a blanket

and brought from a basket some apples and a paring knife.
Summertime. My mother wore sunglasses. And long sleeves.

Sunglasses and long sleeves. Remember when I said not a word was wasted in the poem? He’s not commenting on her fashion choices here, but the wounds she’s learned to cover. Read that goddamn line again. Eight words is all it took to brutally echo the domestic violence mentioned earlier, how the participants learn to live with it, and just one word ‘summertime’ is all that’s needed to disguise it, so that at first glance, you might just think he’s describing what she’s wearing simply to paint a picture.

but did you know the collective noun
for swans is a lamentation? And is a lamentation not

its own species of song? What a woman wails, punch drunk
in the street? Or what a widow might sing, learning her man

was drowned by swans? A lamentation of them? Imagine
the capsized boat, the panicked man, struck about the eyes,

nose, and mouth each time he comes up for air.

Remember when I said the digressions in this poem are not digressions? ‘His widow said he drowned one morning on a fishing trip.’ Moments presented as meaningless, or if not that, then irrelevant certainly, keep winding their way back into the poem, into the narrative, just as with life.

And so the poem folds back in on itself, again and again, the whole of it a lamentation, yes, but not for the widow, not for the dead man, not even for his mother and not for Sonny and not for Eric Dolphy, but for the city itself–for the place he left behind, and of course for himself. That he has learned not to break his stride to save himself, that he – no, we – do not let anything intrude on our path, no matter the desperation of it, no matter the pain, the screaming. And we shrug and convince ourselves it was for other reasons. We’re ‘not indifferent, exactly.’ We just have things to do.

Either trumpet swans or mutes. The dead man’s wife
running for help, crying to any who’d listen. A lamentation.
And a city busy saving itself.

Something else I want to talk about for a moment is metaphor. Too many poets think of and use metaphors the same way they do unusual words, like a clown determined to show how many different strips of coloured cloth he can pull out of his sleeve. It’s not about how many you use, or how unusual they are, but how right they are for the poem, and much meaning you can wring from them. Murillo shifted from sparrows to swans mid-poem, and he doubles down on that imagery and its associated meanings to exquisite, heartbreaking affect. In the hands of a lesser poet, it would be suffocating and stilted, but in the hands of a master, a river can be wrung from a single stone.

So we come to the last beautiful stanzas, packed again with callbacks, much like, you might even say, the liquid language of birds:

When I left my parents’ house, I never looked back. By which
I mean I made like a god and disappeared. As when I left

the sparrows. And the copulating swans. As when someday
I’ll leave this city. Its every flailing, its every animal song.

While I didn’t exactly sing the praises of the first line of the poem, allow me to do so now. You see how the ending recasts the beginning? He lives in another city already, which is not unlike the city he writes about here. The one he knows he’ll leave, and lament all the while.