"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Shadowy Feather of an Owl

My Beautiful House Ghost Constance Chauncey


This and all owls below by
American Artist Charley Harper

A list of my "Old Favorites From Way Back" (posted last month on Kitti's List) includes I Heard the Owl Call My Name (by Canadian writer Margaret Craven, 1901 - 1980). This is the story of a terminally ill young vicar, Mark Brian, who spends the last year of his life serving the residents of a remote North American Indian village and becoming familiar with their legend of the revered owl who heralds death: "It was death, reaching out his hand, touching the face gently, even before the owl had called the name" (147). As knowledge of his illness dawns upon him, Mark "heard an owl call--once, and again--and the questions that had been rising all day long reached the door of his mind and opened it." He confides in one of the village elders, "Marta, a strange thing happened tonight. On the banks of the river I heard the owl call my name" (155).


A similar owl, a welcome messenger of release and closure, appears in the following mystical poem by John Haines. The owl in this poem preys upon mice but is friend and silent companion to the narrator. The eerie, prophetic tone is similar to that of "Listening in October" (mentioned recently):

If the Owl Calls Again
at dusk
from the island in the river,
and it's not too cold,

I'll wait for the moon
to rise,
then take wing and glide
to meet him.

We will not speak,
but hooded against the frost
soar above
the alder flats, searching
with tawny eyes.

And then we'll sit
in the shadowy spruce
and pick the bones
of careless mice,

while the long moon drifts
toward Asia
and the river mutters
in its icy bed.

And when the morning climbs
the limbs
we'll part without a sound,

fulfilled, floating
homeward as
the cold world awakens.

poem by John Haines (b. 1924)
American poet and professor
Poet Laureate of Alaska, 1969 - 1973

"If the Owl Calls Again" and "Listening in October" can both be found in The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer: Collected Poems


In the following poem by Tennessee Williams, the owl appears as an omen of death, leading, at last, not to misfortune but to destiny. The owl is "shadowy" but not sinister. Nearing the end of his struggle with cancer, the narrator anticipates the owl's arrival. I am including this long poem in its entirety, because I'm not sure where else you might find a copy of it. Google yielded no results when I searched for it, so I took a few minutes to type it line by line:

The Summer Belvedere

Such icy wounds the city people bear
beneath brown coats enveloping withered members!

I don't want to know of mutilations

nor witness the long-drawn evening debarkation
of warm and liquid cargoes in torn wrappings
the ships of mercy carry back from war.

We live on cliffs above such moaning waters!
Our eyeballs are starred by the vision of burning cities,
our eardrums shattered by cannon.
A blast of the dying,
a thunder of people who cannot catch their breath
is caught in the mortar and molded into the walls.

And I, obsessed with a dread of things corroded,
of rasping faucets, of channels that labor to flow
have no desire to know of morbid tissues,
of cells that begin prodigiously to flower.

There is an hour in which disease will be known
as more than occasion for some dim relative's sorrow.
But still the watcher within my soundless country
assures the pendulum duties of the heart
and asks no reason but keeps a faithful watch

as I keep mine from the height of the belvedere!
And though no eyrie is sacred to wind entirely,

a wall of twigs can build a kind of summer.

I asked my kindest friend to guard my sleep.

I said to him, Give me the motionless thicket of summer,
the velvety cul-de-sac, and quiet the drummer.

I said to him, Brush my forehead with a feather,
not with an eagle's feather, nor with a sparrow's,
but with the shadowy feather of an owl.

I said to him, Come to me dressed in a cloak and a cowl,
and bearing a candle whose flame is very still.

Our belvedere looks over a bramble hill.

I said to him, Give me the cool white kernel of summer,
the windless terminal of it, and calm the drummer!

I said to him, Tell the drummer
the rebels have crossed the river and no one is here
but John with the broken drumstick and half-wit Peg
who shot spitballs at the moon from the belvedere.

Tell the feverish drummer no man is here.
But what if he doesn't believe me?
Give him proof!
For there is no lie that contains no part of truth.

And then, with the sort of courage that comes with fever,
the body becoming sticks that blossom with flame,
the flame for a while obscuring what it consumes,
I twisted and craned to peer in the loftier room--

I saw the visitor there, and him I knew
as my waiting ghost.

The belvedere was blue.

I said to my kindest friend, The time has come
to hold what is agitated and make it still.

I said to him, Fold your hands upon the drum.

Permit no kind of sudden or sharp disturbance
but move about you constantly, keeping the guard
with fingers whose touch is narcotic, brushing the walls
to quiet the shuddering in them,
drawing your sleeves across the hostile mirrors
and cupping your palms to breathe upon the glass.

After a while anxiety will pass.

The time has come, I said, for purification.

Rub out the lewd inscriptions on the walls,
remove the prisoners' names and maledictions,
for lack of faith has left impurities here,

and whisper faith to the summer belvedere.

Draw back the kites of hysteria from the sky,
those struggling fish draw back from their breathless pool,
and whisper assurances cool
to the watchful corners, and whisper sleep and sleep
along the treads of the stairs, and up the stairwell,

clear to the belvedere, yes, clear up there, where giggling John
stood up in his onionskin of adolescence
to shoot spitballs at the moon from the captain's walk.

And then, at the last, he said, What shall I do?
The sweetest of treasons, I told him. Lean toward my listening ear
and whisper the long word to me,
the longest of all words to me,
the word that divides the sky from the belvedere.

[emphasis added above]

by Tennessee Williams (1911 - 1983)
American Playwright
Twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama
Twice awarded the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award

Click to see more Charley Harper

Next Fortnightly Post
Sunday, November 28, 2010

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

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