When the goldfinch, in his airy confection, Suddenly gets angry, begins to quake, His spite sets off his scholar’s robes, Shows to advantage his cute black cap. And he slanders the hundred bars, Curses the sticks and perches of his prison—And the world’s turned completely inside out, And surely there’s a forest Salamanca For birds so smart, so disobedient.
Osip Mandelstam, 1936
An Irreverent Christmas Message December 2009
Bright mote, tufted spark, twig dignitary, six-grape lightweight stalker of insects, inconsequential whorl of feathers, how you leaven the world!
Such a no-account as you, crosshatching blankets of newly lain snow, at odds with wet leaves, tussling in high winds, scuttling among low branches, flitting past long grass, jabbing at bark and earth—when do you give up? I cuss and squirm, groan and stretch my poor back as I spin money out of electricity in my snug den until your clear warble pricks me and I stop to listen to your whistle and call, instructions piping out between branches beyond gutters to fellow feathered no-accounts who listen and flute back their evanescent absolutes. What bosh! As if there was something to sing about, some weather worthy of verse, a reason to whistle in the rain, some solid point to poking about in dirt, a weighty purpose to ruffling bacteria-laden feathers. You fool of the air, you never cease to scour from my heart the drabness of the day.
What a saucy squanderer to glitter and whistle, fly and sing, flutter and splatter and jabber the way you do. Don’t you know? Lavishing your pluck on such a world is utter nonsense. Don’t you know? Trivial morsels such as you will be stubbed out. Don’t you know? A billion-footed glutton is on the move, who covets your wings—oh, how it covets those wings!—and lusts after the vigor, spark, cheer you emit as lightly as you breathe.
You who have no Saviour, look who has caged you now. The billion-footed glutton, his Saviour hoisted high, has assumed the status of keeper. Saturday mornings it conveys you to the porch to invigorate you with fresh air. It pokes and lunges and fusses at you. You squawk and dart and lunge back. The glutton has such fun, but turns to fetch its toast, leaving Precious to hang caged in the wind.
Yes, solitary Precious is wired now. Disoriented. Somewhat confused. Precious flies up, flies down, to the middle, frantically consulting its three rungs again and again and again, round and round and round, a froth in the blood to obey an absent star, to respond to a pulse that would wing him northward hundreds of miles, hundreds of miles, hundreds of miles, until he collapses, tilted dawnward against the bars as if stuffed.
The glutton returns, spirit crusty, unbuttered, the toast no good, fretful eyes probing the shadows, catching sight of its creature, hoping to hear once more the chirruping of his hale fellow well met.