Fly Away Home (detail)
Jessica Palmer

On my old blog, I posted poems regularly (among my favorites were Dan Chiasson’s “Mosaic of a Hare” and David Barber’s “Pilgrim’s Progress.”) But I haven’t encountered a particularly inspirational poem recently, so I let the habit lapse here on the new blog.

I think it’s high time to reinstate the tradition, starting with this gem from Stanley Plumly, who teaches just a few miles away at the University of Maryland-College Park:

“The Crows at 3 A.M.”
Stanley Plumly
From the June 2 New Yorker

The politically correct, perfect snow of Vermont
undulant under the lightly bruised, moonlit-backed-
becoming-storm-clouds slowing then speeding just above
the line of blue spruce on Mt. Mansfield here in
what I’m told is the state’s “cloudiest county,”
vaguely an analogy for the plate tectonics of the blankets
constantly shifting from the left to the right side
of my body, pulling the heart, until by dawn I’m holding on,
waking with the cold, somehow looking at my hands
that, in the pearl dark, look like the first fall castings
of the sycamore, those pocked dry leaves
that were my mother’s final hands: sallow
dying coloring, mapping liverspots, rootlike
veining texturing the underdermal surfaces. The test,

writes Fitzgerald, in an essay called “The Crack-Up,”
of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold
opposing ideas in the mind at the same time yet retain
the ability to function. He couldn’t, he says, so he cracked
like a plate. He is trying to update Keats’s
notion of “Negative Capability, that is
when a man is capable of being in uncertainties,
Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact
& reason–Coleridge, for instance, would let go
by a fine isolated verisimilitude
caught from the Penetralium of mystery,
from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge.”
When I heard the crows, like raven-geese, rending the dark,
filling the falling snow with wings,
   &nbsp   &nbsp   &nbsp   &nbsp   &nbsp       &nbsp   &nbsp   &nbsp   &nbsp   &nbsp  &nbsp I thought, for a moment,
they were speaking or singing.
Crows at the hour–Fitzgerald again–of the dark night
of the soul, Poe-like crows chasing back and forth
in a quandary or a quarrel, up and down the Gihon.
Then they disappeared, let me drift back into sleep
to find my hands holding my mother’s hands as if to help her
rise from the cold dead dream light of Vermont.
Stevens’s some twenty blackbirds differ only in their scale:
the beauty of inflections and innuendos,
shadows passing out of hearing, out of sight,
but no less present in the settled order. Thus the river’s moving,
the blackbird must be flying, two half-knowledges
or halves of one knowing. Those who love us who now live
in the air live in a loneliness we sometimes imagine.

Plumly is a poet of recurring themes; birds dominated his last collection, Old Heart. He writes of naturalistic, Audobon-literal birds, as in “Birding:”

Some had the throats of sunsets,
some a pond’s gray-blue, some had thumbnail necklaces,
some the white of paper or ink from the glass inkwell.
Then you had to cut them if only in order to count them,
there at the sunset, the still pond or the necklace,
the whistle of a voice whose windpipe was a reed.

Then there are symbolic, emotion-laden birds, as in “Elevens“:

Brunelleschi, bricking up the eggshell
of his dome, understood the soul must live
in space constructed out of nature.
He could see within his double-vaulted,
self-supporting ceiling a sky “higher
than the sky itself.” When I was there,
in the Duomo, looking up, the terror of
a bird took all the heart out of the air.

Plumly’s passion for birds (and butterflies – he seems enamored of wings in general) is complemented by his affection for yet another bird-preoccupied poet, John Keats (of “Ode to a Nightingale.“) Plumly’s most recent book, Posthumous Keats, testifies to the long-standing influence Keats has on Plumly’s decades-long body of work. Like many of Plumly’s poems, “The Crows at 3 A.M.” is woven on the warp of other poets’ words – not only Keats, but also Wallace Stevens and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up” opens with “Of course all life is a process of breaking down”; that’s the process Plumly’s poem reflects: dying, “cracking,” “rending,” passing. And Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is one of my all-time favorite poems; if you don’t know it, it’s hard to follow Plumly’s last stanza – so here it is:

“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”
Wallace Stevens

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

Although Stevens closes “The Birds at 3 A.M.”, it’s Keats’ description of Negative Capability that is the poem’s fulcrum – or perhaps, to use a deliciously obscure word Keats seems to have coined, its “Penitralium”. In Keats’ words, Negative Capability is “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason;” in Fitzgerald’s, “the ability to hold opposing ideas in the mind at the same time yet retain the ability to function.” Keats imbues this idea with mystical, artistic overtones, but Negative Capability is an essential gift for scientists as well as artists. Like Stevens’ tree with three blackbirds, a scientist’s mind must let multiple hypotheses cohabitate without prejudice, until the preponderance of evidence favors one. Of course the scientist actively seeks to resolve this uncertainty through reason and experimentation, while I think the artist/poet aims for the opposite outcome, striving to sustain uncertainty as long as possible. Nevertheless, both artist and scientists must be able to work productively in a state of prolonged ambiguity.

A good scientist also knows that, though science may yield an excellent approximation of reality, it can never lead us to absolute truth. The cognitive limitations that undermine objectivity in the lab are the same limitations that plague our personal lives and relationships. Love (like poetry) is a state of half-knowledge, of inflections and innuendos. We can never fully comprehend the minds of those we love, living or dead – only recognize and respect the lacunae of our not-knowing. In Stevens’ poem, “the man and the woman and the blackbird are one” – and isn’t it true that a mystery occupies the axis of any relationship, separating one person from another?

Negative capability is a state between certainties, defined by what it is not. A black bird, glimpsed at a distance, is a scrap of emptiness between clouds, snow, or branches – similarly defined by what it is not. (Plumly again, in a poem called “Spirit Birds”: “The spirit world the negative of this one/ soft outlines of soft whites against soft darks. . . “) I painted the flock of birds at the top of the post by using this principle, and simply negating the background clouds. The “birds” are imaginary; the painting works because “birds” are the mind’s best guess at an ambiguous stimulus. We are guessing like this all the time, and many of our inferences are misleading, or just plain wrong. That does not mean we should stop guessing. But to be content, we must make peace with the uncertainty that always bounds our reality – whether it involves the outlines of birds against a night sky, or the thoughts of those we love. This is what Plumly captures so melodiously as he closes his poem:

Thus the river’s moving,
the blackbird must be flying, two half-knowledges
or halves of one knowing. Those who love us who now live
in the air live in a loneliness we sometimes imagine.

Old Heart: Poems by Stanley Plumly was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the 2007 LA Times Book Prize in poetry. Many thanks to Professor Plumly for granting permission to reproduce “The Crows at 3 A.M.” on bioephemera.


  1. #1 Robyn
    June 25, 2008

    A hell of a post, Jessica. You wove poetry, science and art all together to create something unique and beautiful that will inform the rest of my day.

    And the watercolour is beautiful as well.

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