I know bird poems have become almost a cliché in Australian poetry, but I have a great fondness for the topic and so I couldn’t resist Dimitra Harvey’s evocatively brocaded poem about yellow-tailed black cockatoos, Calyptorhynchus funereus. Astute observation is at the heart of this poem, the poet’s careful pinpointing of particulars is what makes it so memorable, but the poem is so much more than just descriptive, it evokes many tones of mood and it richly maps the birds to landscape, weather and to folklore. Right from the start the birds are linked with death: ‘Your plumes are as black as the dresses and jackets/ we wear at the edges of burial plots.’ And later, ‘each wingbeat scores broad arches in the wind/ with the measured pace of pallbearers.’ The dark undertones in the poem burn off any hint of sentimentality and the birds quickly become augers, not only of death, but of the life-giving force of rain. The way colours are used in the poem is one of its attractions, the stark blackness of the birds is set off against ‘they sky’s bayberry vellum’ and at sunset when ‘the sun decants its port dregs’.
What I enjoyed most is the way the birds intensely haunt the imagination of the speaker. This poem is an excellent example of how the poet, through attention, exploration and invention, discovers the images and metaphors, the rhythms and sound patterns which open and reveal a unique set of meanings. To my mind, poems created without a basis in feeling, however artful and clever, are ultimately dissatisfying. We can see in Dimitra Harvey’s poem how the poetic imagination depends upon emotion, so that by the end, the speaker’s deep connection to the birds allows for an expansion and activation of knowledge.
Calyptorhynchus funereus (Yellow-Tailed Black Cockatoos) Your plumes are as black as the dresses and jackets we wear at the edges of burial plots. I've read stories of the storms you portend; how you are a cipher to an inch of rain. For weeks, I've watched you plane the sky's bayberry vellum, seen falling light transpose your silhouettes into a straight-cut script I've tried to sound out - a susurrus of fricatives spattered with quick cool vowels. And when you've tacked low above the house, I've studied your lean, cleaver-knife tails; how each wingbeat scores broad arches in the wind with the measured pace of pallbearers. Now, as the sun decants its port dregs, your squeals ricochet from tumbled bloodwood trunk, shed wall. Tomorrow, squalls in the north will blast down burry clouds. You'll slow-sail in, moor to the needled limbs of the pine in the yard. You'll flex your crests at the gum-scented westerlies, and unpick cones for their seeds with your feet, your bills. When you flutter out your wing I'll learn that the ridge of its underside is a craquelure of lemon. The yellow thumbed on behind each of your polished eyes will flash like roman sun medallions. I'll read stories of high summer and drought, of roots cracking with thirst, flowers opening dry buds to the deluge. But tonight, after your bodies dissolve against horizons seeping all the reds of pomegranate seeds, I'll stand and listen to the ticking of night beetles - my tongue smarting with the honeyed-metal piquancy of rain.