Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

The Basics of Bird Flight

The skull of the Berlin Archaeopteryx lithographica specimen [resized].
Notice that feathers are faintly visible near the throat region.
Photo: Nick Longrich.
Click image for larger view in its own window.

Today is the last day of National Poetry Month. For some reason, I had forgotten this was National Poetry Month until it was more than halfway over. I regret that; I had planned to share a poem every day with you, but maybe I’ll be more organized next year.

I had wanted to finish the month by writing a review of my friend’s newly published book of poetry, but it has not arrived yet, so instead, I will finish with a poem that she read in public for PoetsWest, which took place at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, a poem she surprised me with by dedicating it to me at that time.

My Seattle friend, Shannon Borg, earned her PhD in poetry and english literature from the University of Houston and her first book of poetry, Corset, was just released a week ago. There is a lot more I could say about her, but I’ll let her do the talking with her poem, instead.

The Basics of Bird Flight
by Shannon Borg

For [GrrlScientist]

This map is made of wind and the sun’s settling light.
Songbirds follow the river at dusk, its dark scent

curls through their hollow beaks, feathers
hollow as the space memory takes, now gone

as blood is gone for an instant from the heart —
and returns, infused with air, memory

given rebirth. Past and future fall
together through those empty bones.

Is this what keeps them aloft? Shorebirds know north,
orient themselves by what would kill them.

A blackcap flies south its first winter as if a blossom
burst in its heart — suddenly it knows:

South for ten dawns, southwest for seven. Distance
mapped in the blood; spinning, but sure. A starling

could find its way home from the moon. Outside my window
a bluejay allows the danger of the earth, in order to swallow

a stone; it bulges in the craw, there to break seeds.
Is this what it is to be human? To see out

from inside and desire something of it? There was some bird-
blood in my ancestors, a drop in me, a magnet

drawing my hollowness back. But to where? As birds flock,
gliding the wing tip vortex that eases their flight,

they keep answers in bone, some dark faith the invisible marrow.



  1. #1 Alane
    April 30, 2006

    That’s beautiful. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. #2 shannon
    May 1, 2006

    what a surprise! I remember going up to an aviary at the U of Washington campus where Hedwig was working, to see the research birds up there — and learning about how birdsong develops and shifts, then “crystallizes” as hormones change. It was an inspiration – I love the intersections between science and art. Of course, the other major intersection we shared was at the Big Time, where barley met yeast to ferment into some of the best beer (and conversation!) anywhere.

    Thanks GrrlScientist!

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