Helen Macdonald, "Taxonomy"



Wren. Full song. No subsong. Call of alarm, spreketh & ought
damage the eyes with its form, small body, tail pricked up & beak like a hair

trailed through briars & at a distance scored with lime scent in the nose
like scrapings from a goldsmith’s cuttle, rock alum & fair butter well-temped

which script goes is unrecognised by this one, is pulled by the ear
in anger the line at fault is under and inwardly drear as a bridge in winter

reared up inotherwise to seal the eyes through darkness, the bridge speaks
it does not speak, the starlings speak that steal the speech of men, uc antea

a spark that meets the idea of itself, apparently fearless.
Ah cruelty. And I had not stopped to think upon it

& I had not extended it into the world for love for naught.


Alarm becomes form. What is a song, or what gives it its consistency? Does a signature become a style, and how is territory en-faced? Taxonomy is the first act & is all of the imagination, says Borges, and "Taxonomy" begins with a Wren – "Wren. Full song. No subsong."

W. H. Thorpe's Learning and Instinct in Animals outlines the distinction between subsong and full song. The subsong is a marker, the full-song encoded, style and ornament. "Call of alarm" – a predator; a human observer; the lyric poet's uncertainties over any self-singing presentation, projecting an alarm?

Lines and scores, "like a hair", "like scrapings", then distance us from the object-wren: beak compares to hair "at a distance", becoming involved in an idea of rock alum and a script "pulled by the ear". Distance is a possession. The poem enacts our distance from the wren, and performs its own call of lyric territory after registering the wren's own "full song".

Rock alum (Roche alum?), a kind of alum (alarm-alum) occuring in small fragments, being a double sulfate of a monovalent metal or radical (as sodium, potassium, or ammonium) with a trivalent metal (as aluminum, iron, or chromium). Is "rock alum" named after Rocca, in Syria? You can buy sticks of 'Allume di Rocca' to use on shaving cuts. Will it work as astringent here, over degrees of distancing, or as an emetic, and out comes the lyric phenomenology, full of consonance? And what bridge, inwardly drear? Of perception, or "drear" communication.

"[...]the starlings speak that steal the speech of men, uc antea

a spark that meets the idea of itself, apparently fearless.
Ah cruelty." [1]

Macdonald doesn't say that starlings "mimic", but "steal" - "a spark that meets the idea of itself", a form of aparallel evolution. Starlings [2] are known for this stealing of human speech, particularly pet starlings, a fact that Pliny noted (they were trained for the amusement of young Caesars, often able to "speak" in both Greek and Latin) and thus lyric poets have picked up on this:

    HOTSPUR: He said, he would not ransom Mortimer;
    Forbade my tongue to speak of Mortimer;
    But I will find him when he lies asleep,
    And in his ear I'll holloa, 'Mortimer!'
    Nay, I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak
    Nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him,
    To keep his anger still in motion.

    (Henry IV. Part I. 1.3)

Events echo on as names; Macdonald seems to pick up on this idea of "anger still in motion" with the script pulled by the ear "in anger" - layered over with the tonal thought, "Ah cruelty." After this two-word sentence, an "I" appears, the lyric distancing finding its found state, extending ideas into the world "for love for naught." At night the eyes are sealed.

[1] I read this phrase as a disjointed "before", an arrow back to the spark, although its source is apparently obscure: Nate Dorward, annotating Keith Tuma's Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry, notes: "The italicized phrase 'uc antea' remains unexplained. Macdonald said to me she no longer remembered where she found the phrase, or its meaning. (She thought it was in Bert's Treatise of Hawks and Hawking but I failed to find it there.)"

[2] The beak of the European starling is rather interesting as song-bird musculature, as the jaw muscles work not to clamp the beak shut, but to spring it open. The beak can grip prey and pry apart obscuring plants. As the beak opens, the eyes move forward toward each other, permitting binocular vision. Thus active and dormant prey can be spotted.

© Edmund Hardy 2006

I find it frustrating that this - what is it, treatment? commentary? review? thoughts on? response to? - Helen MacDonald is actually harder to follow than her poetry itself. Which is ... hard to follow. I am reading Shaler's Fish at the moment and enjoying her sensuous feel for and deployment of language ... but not following it. Definitely not following it. So it would be nice to read something about MacDonald's work which elucidates it (for flat-footed readers like myself who need to 'understand' poetry rather than simply appreciate it from a distance like a painting or a landscaped garden) instead of something which seems to thicken the broth still further. Delightful poetic broth though it is.
i sense your frustration -

but doesn't edmund elucidate song, territory, mimesis here, if briefly? and not in a looking-at-a-painting way but an encountering-poem way.

it might help if you said which bits of the above you found hard to follow?

personally, i'd like to read more about the last "Ah cruelty" bit which isn't elucidated at all. edmund?
I've been reading Shaler's Fish again, in the hope that I may be able to get to the Poetry Cafe on 26th Oct. when Helen MacDonald will apparently be reading there, and I'm still frustrated by the 'nearly, nearly' quality of her writing. Or of my understanding. But getting more out of it than I did last time I cast my eye over her book.

For instance, so much of the poem above, Taxonomy, reads to me like a Latin unseen translated by someone who wasn't paying enough attention in class. Staring at starlings out of the window perhaps. Or reading copies of Culpeper's Herbal under the desk.

Yet, there are rhythmic patterns here that appeal to me. The abruptness of the first lines - classification, something read from a book - comes back with 'Ah cruelty' and that oddly medieval touch - 'speketh' and 'naught' - opening and closing the poem. The voice intrigues me and makes me read more closely, trying in vain to make sense of it, but then I just get cross and want to jump up and down on these poems.

Hopefully I will try to restrain that impulse if I do get to the reading next week ...

Sorry, that should have been 'spreketh'. That's me rewriting the poem, of course, forcing it into my own interpretation.

Tee hee.
what's 'spreketh' supposed to mean? heeeelp!!!
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