Notes to Poem:
"Mother Bird in the Wild Branches"

Peter Y. Chou

Preface: While having breakfast by my kitchen window on September 7, 2009, 10:40 am, I noticed a giant bird shaped from leaveless branches of an eucalyptus tree. It reminded me of Alexander Calder's steel-wired sculpture of a cow. This bird is gigantic with head over a foot wide and five feet long from beak to tail. I kept gazing at it while eating my oatmeal. When the bird seems to be talking to me, I went outside on the porch and took its photograph. When the wind blew, the body of this bird did not waver, except for its eye made bright by sunlight that moved. Immediately, Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" came to mind. Other bird verses of Shelley, Keats, Attar, Rilke, Emily Dickinson, and Mary Oliver also floated by as well as bird music of Respighi, Camille Saint-Saens, and Ralph Vaughan Williams. The next day, I was amazed to see a single "Bird Cloud" hovering over the tree where "Mother Bird" had nestled. I took a photograph of this ethereal cloud soaring in the deep blue sky. Were all these bird images created by my mind? In appreciation of Mary Oliver's "Such Singing in the Wild Branches", I've titled this poem "Mother Bird in the Wild Branches".

Bird in eucalyptus tree outside my window

Bird Cloud over the tree the next day

Commentary on Poem "Mother Bird in the Wild Branches"

Wallace Stevens, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" (1917)
Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) was an American Modernist poet who spent most of his life working as a lawyer for a Connecticut insurance company. As a Harvard undergraduate, he exchanged sonnets with the philosopher George Santayana who became a friend. This may be the reason Stevens is considered a poet of ideas whose work is meditative and philosophical. "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is a poem from his first book Harmonium (1917). Although inspired by haiku, the 13 short separate poems all focus on the blackbird (text, Zen analysis). Blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus) is iridescent black with yellow eyes and a purplish head. Female blackbirds are grayish with dark eyes. The poem has inspired three pieces of music: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by composer Lukas Foss, Thirteen Ways by Thomas Albert, and Blackbirds, for Flute and Bassoon by Gregory Youtz. See Ethan Georgi's drawings and Edward Picot's animated illustrations of the poem. Below are lines from Wallace Stevens' "Blackbird" poem that I've borrowed and honoring in my "Mother Bird" poem:
"Mother Bird in the Wild Branches" "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" (1917)
sitting in the eucalyptus-limbs The blackbird sat / In the cedar-limbs. (XIII.4-5)
Shaped from twenty leaveless branches Among twenty snowy mountains (I.1)
the only moving thing is its sunlit eye The only moving thing / Was the eye of the blackbird. (I.2-3)
from a leaf that whirls in the wind The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds. (III.1)

like a Calder steel-wired sculpture in a museum
Here's Alexander Calder's Vache Cow (1929) made from steel wire. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

I hear thee and rejoice O blessed bird!
This line is from William Wordsworth (1770-1850), "To the Cuckoo" (1804): "O blithe New-comer! I have heard, / I hear thee and rejoice. / O Cuckoo! shall I call thee Bird, / Or but a sandering Voice?" (stanza 1) "O blessed Bird! the earth we pace /Again appears to be / An unsubstantial, faery place; / That is fit home for Thee!" (stanza 8). The book Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo (2009) by Michael McCarthy tells about the cuckoo's disappearing from Britain. In southern England the song is almost extinct.

bird songs from Respighi's The Birds
Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) was an Italian composer who went to Russia to study with Rimsky-Korsakov. In the Pines of Rome, he uses a phonograph recording of a nightingale's song because he felt that no combination of musical sounds could duplicate nature's song! Gli Uccelli (The Birds) (1927) similarly adheres to Respighi's determination to transfer Nature's music to the symphony orchestra. The work is based on music from the 18th century, transcribing birdsongs into musical notation. The Birds is in five movements: (1) Prelude (based on music of Bernardo Pasquini), (2) La colomba ("The dove" based on music of Jacques de Gallot) (3) La gallina ("The hen" based on music of Jean-Philippe Rameau), (4) L'usignuoto" ("The nightingale" based on an anonymous source), (5) Il cucù ("The cuckoo" based on music of Pasquini). See San Diego Symphony program notes, November 2006.

Camille Saint-Saens' "Swan" from Carnival of the Animals
Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) was a French composer, conductor, pianist, organist. He is known especially for The Carnival of the Animals (1886). "Le Cygne (The Swan)" is the 13th of fourteen movements for two pianos and cello. The lushly romantic cello solo (which evokes the swan elegantly gliding over the water) is played over rippling sixteenths in one piano and rolled chords in the other (representing the swan's feet, hidden from view beneath the water, propelling it along). This is by far the most famous movement of the suite. Saint-Saëns was a child prodigy, composing his first symphony at age 16. At age ten, he gave his debut recital and as an encore Saint-Saëns offered to play any one of Beethoven's 32 paino sonatas from memory. Hector Berlioz, who also became a good friend, famously remarked, "Il sait tout, mais il manque d'inexpérience" ("He knows everything, but lacks inexperience").

Vaughan Williams' Lark Ascending
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was a British composer of symphonies, chamber music, opera, choral music, and film scores. The Lark Ascending (1914) is a popular piece for violin and orchestra. It was inspired by George Meredith's 122-line poem of the same name about the skylark. The composition is intended to convey the lyrical and English beauty of the scene in which a skylark rises into the heavens above some sunny downland and attains such height that it becomes barely visible to those on the ground below.

Shelley's "To a Skylark"
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) was a British Romantic poet and regarded among the finest lyric poets in the English language. He wrote "To a Skylark" in late June 1820 near Livorno, Italy. The poem was inspired by an evening walk in the country with Mary Shelley, and describes the appearance and song of a skylark they saw. The poem uses a unique five-line stanza with a three beat line except for the fifth line, which doubles the number beats of the other lines. It has the rhyme scheme that is consistently 'ababb' (Poem).

Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale"
John Keats wrote "Ode to a Nightingale" in May 1819. It was first published in the Annals of the Fine Arts in July 1819. Twenty years after the poet's death, Joseph Severn painted the famous portrait 'Keats listening to a nightingale on Hampstead Heath'. Keats's friend and roommate, Charles Brown, described the composition of this beautiful work as follows: 'In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast-table to the grass plot under a plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found these scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feeling on the song of our nightingale. The writing was not well legible; and it was difficult to arrange the stanzas on so many scraps. With his assistance I succeeded, and this was his 'Ode to a Nightingale', a poem which has been the delight of everyone.'

Attar's Conference of the Birds

Conference of the Birds (1177)
painted by Habib Allah
The Conference of the Birds (Mantiq at-Tayr) is a book of poems in Persian by Farid ud-Din Attar (1142-1220) of approximately 4500 lines. The poem uses a journey by a group of 30 birds, led by a hoopoe as an allegory of a Sufi sheikh or master leading his pupils to enlightenment. Besides being one of the most beautiful examples of Persian poetry, this book relies on a clever word play between the words Simorgh— a mysterious bird in Iranian mythology which is a symbol often found in Sufi literature, and similar to the phoenix bird— and si morgh— meaning "thirty birds" in Persian. Its most famous section contains this quatrain:
        Come you lost Atoms to your Centre draw,
        And be the Eternal Mirror that you saw:
        Rays that have wander'd into Darkness wide
        Return and back into your Sun subside

Birds symbolize spirits of the air, ascent, freedom, the soul, and transcendence. Beryl Rowland (1918-2003) wrote a book Birds with Human Souls: A Guide to Bird Symbolism (University of Tennessee Press, 1978) covering 57 birds from Albatross to Wren (plus Harpy & Siren). More than fifty illustrations from medieval manuscripts accompany her discussions on the allegorical meanings and symbolisms of these birds.

a single "Bird Cloud" over the tree
Line from Emily Dickinson, Poem #1084 (1866):
    At Half past Three, a single Bird
    Unto a silent Sky
    Propounded but a single term
    Of cautious melody.

O how it soared to the deepest sky
Line from Emily Dickinson's Poem #1211 (1872):
    A Sparrow Took a Slice of Twig
    And thought it very nice...
    In all the deepest sky.

as if gravity sprinkled upward
This line is from the American poet Mary Oliver (born 1935), well known for her attentive observations of the natural world. In her poem "Such Singing in the Wild Branches" from Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays (2003), she hears thrushes singing in springtime—
    when I seemed to float,
    to be, myself, a wing or a tree—
    and I began to understand
    what the bird was saying,

and the sands in the glass
for a pure white moment
while gravity sprinkled upward

like rain, rising,"

when Beatrice taught Dante that
his home is not earth but the stars
so he could at last fly skyward

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321),
Commedia: Paradiso, I.91-105 (1300 A.D.)
Beatrice tells Dante about lightness of being:
    You are not on the earth as you believe;
    but lightning, flying from its own abode,
    is less swift than you are, returning home.

With these words and her smile, Dante began
to levitate and fly with Beatrice through the
celestial spheres until they reached paradise.

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510):
Dante's Paradiso I: Ascent to Heaven (1495)
Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin

"Hope is the thing
with feathers perching in the soul—

Line from Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), Poem #254 (1861):
    "Hope" is the thing with feathers—
    That perches in the soul—
    And sings the tune without the words—
    And never stops— at all—

flying out in space curve by curve,
sweep by sweep onto bluest blue.

Lines from Emily Dickinson Poem #703 (1863)
    Out of sight? what of that?
    See the Bird— reach it!
    Curve by Curve— Sweep by Sweep—
    Round the Steep Air—...
    Blue is Blue— the World through—

and Poem #1211 (1872):
    A Sparrow Took a Slice of Twig
    And thought it very nice...
    In all the deepest sky.

Ah! this winged energy of delight
Line from Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926),
"As Once the Winged Energy of Delight"
(Muzot, mid-February, 1924). First stanza:
    As once the winged energy of delight
    carried you over childhood's dark abysses,
    now beyond your own life build the great
    arch of unimagined bridges.

    (translated by Stephen Mitchell,
    Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, 1989, p. 261)

soaring higher still and higher—
Line is from Shelley's "To a Skylark" (stanza 2.1):
    Higher still and higher / From the earth thou springest, / Like a cloud of fire; /
    The blue deep thou wingest, / And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.

Away! away! for I will fly to thee
Line is from John Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale" (stanza 4.1):
    Away! away! for I will fly to thee

returning on rays back to the Sun
Line is from Attar's Conference of the Birds (1177):
    Rays that have wander'd into Darkness wide
    Return and back into your Sun subside

Since the Sun is composed of mostly hydrogen (atomic number=1), it is the foundation of the Chemical Table of Elements from which this entire universe is created. Returning to the Sun is a metaphor for going from Earth to Heaven or from multiplicity to unity of Oneness.

to pure abundance in white moment
"pure abundance" may be found in Rilke's
"What birds plunge through is not the intimate space"
(Muzot, June 16, 1924) translated by Stephen Mitchell,
Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, 1989, p. 263):

    Space reaches from us and construes the world:
    to know a tree, in its true element,
    throw inner space around it, from that pure
in you. Surround it with restraint.
    It has no limits. Not till it is held
    in your renouncing is it truly there.

"white moment" appears in Mary Oliver's
"Such Singing in the Wild Branches":
    for a pure white moment
    while gravity sprinkled upward

"Pure abundance" may refer to the Sun's hydrogen from which the entire universe is created. "Pure white moment" may refer to the Big Bang, the moment of this universe's creation when God said "Let there be light!" (Genesis I.3). Plotinus (204-270 AD) advises the spiritual aspirant to chisel away our inner statue as a way to purify ourselves, and writes in The Enneads, I.6.9. (250 AD): "Never did eye see the sun unless it had first become sunlike, and never can the soul have vision of the First Beauty unless itself be beautiful."

on wings of Poesy
Line is from John Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale" (stanza 4.3):
    But on the viewless wings of Poesy

I whirl and dance
This image is from Rumi's "Whirling Dervish" dancing and also from
his poem "Birdsong from Inside the Egg" (Mathnawi III.4664-93)
translated by Coleman Barks, The Essential Rumi (1995), pp. 274-275:
    Like this universe coming into existence,
    the lover wakes, and whirls
    in a dancing joy,
    then kneels down
    in praise.

Computer graphics: "Sufi Dancer" 1993) by Peter Y. Chou

beyond human reason and knowledge
This line is from Farid ud-Din Attar (1145-1230), The Conference of the Birds:
“So then, out of all those thousands of birds, only thirty reached the end of the journey. And even these were bewildered, weary and dejected, with neither feathers nor wings. But now they were at the door of the Majesty that cannot be described, whose essence is incomprehensible— that Being who is beyond human reason and knowledge. Then flashed the lightning of fulfilment, and a hundred worlds were consumed in a moment. They saw thousands of suns each more resplendent than the other, thousands of moons and stars all equally beautiful, and seeing all this they were amazed and agitated like a dancing atom of dust, and they cried out: 'O Thou who art more rediant than the sun!'” (translated by C.S. Nott, 1993, p. 129)

to tunes without words filled with wonder.
Emily Dickinson's Poem #254 (1861), (Stanza 1.1 & 1.3):
    "Hope" is the thing with feathers—
    And sings the tune without the words—

Rilke's "As Once the Winged Energy of Delight" (1924):
    Wonders happen if we can succeed
    in passing through the harshest danger;
    but only in a bright and purely granted
    achievement can we realize the wonder.

Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, I.97-99 (1321):
    content already; after such great wonder,
    I rested. But again I wonder how
    my body rises past these lighter bodies.

Plato writes in Theaetetus 155d (360 BC):
    Wonder is the hallmark of a philosopher,
    for philosophy begins in wonder.

Wonder Bread Box gift from artist friend (8-29-2009)

Plato said that ""philosophy begins in wonder". I've ended this poem "Mother Bird in the Wild Branches" with wonder, for it was truly an experience of wonder seeing the eucalyptus branches outside my window in the shape of a giant "Mother Bird". That it transformed into a "Bird Cloud" was equally miraculous. An artist friend whom I've not seen for many years returned to Palo Alto this summer for private yoga lessons. We had some interesting visits to Cantor Arts Museum and dialogues on spirituality at Stanford Library. On our last meeting, she gave me a surprise gift— a Wonder Bread sandwich box, saying "You inspire wonder to others." I've scanned her gift as an ending to these Notes hoping to share my epiphany of wonder with all. I'm reminded of Albert Einstein's "Never lose a holy curiosity" whenever I'm ballroom dancing and they play the two-step music (Mark D. Sanders & Tia Sellers lyrics) "I Hope You Dance" with the opening words— "I hope you never lose your sense of wonder..."

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© Peter Y. Chou,
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: (10-17-2009)