The sky was good for flying

It was a sudden irruption of the world beyond the window, one of those moments when animal and human lives cross.  There was a crash of breaking glass, and I thought someone was breaking into the house. In the bedroom, glass daggers  had been hurled across the room and out through the door into the hall. Shards of glass were strewn across the bed and a pigeon lay gasping on the floor.  Outside a murder of magpies cackled triumphantly.  It had been a case of mobbing.

Les Murray wrote a poem about a similar incident, though it was a happier one in his case.  His bird – an emerald dove – survived being mobbed by a sparrowhawk; our pigeon died after a few minutes.

In his poem Murray visualises the incident from the dove’s perspective, imagining how humans would feel if something as bewildering happened to us, ‘plunged out of our contentment into evolved strange heaven’.

We ought to hang cutout shapes
in our windows.  Birds hard driven
by a predator, or maddened by a mirrored rival
too often die zonk against the panes’
invisible sheer, or stagger away from
the blind full stop in the air.
It was different with the emerald dove.
In at an open sash, a pair

sheered, missile, in a punch of energy,
one jinking on through farther doors, one
thrown, panicked by that rectangular wrong copse, braked
like a bullet in blood, a full-on splat of wings
like a vaulter between shoulders, blazed and calliper,
ashriek out of jagbeaked fixe fury, swatting wind,
lights, keepsakes, panes, then at the in window out, gone.
A sparrowhawk, by the cirrus feathering.

The other, tracked down in a farther room
clinging to a bedhead, was the emerald dove,
a rainforest bird, flashed in beyond its world
of lice, sudden death and tree seeds. Pigeon-like,
only its eye and neck in liquid motion,
there, as much beyond us as beyond
itself, it perched,barefoot in silks
like a prince of Sukhothai, above the reading lamps and

Modest-sized, as a writing hand, mushroom fawn
apart from its paua casque, those viridescent closed wings,
it was an emerald Levite in that bedroom
which the memory of it was going to bless for years
despite topping our ordinary happiness, as beauty
makes background of all around it.  Levite too
in the question it posed: sanctuary without transformation,
which is, how we might be,

plunged out of our contentment into evolved strange heaven,
where the need to own or mate with or eat the beautiful
was bygone as poverty,
and we were incomprehensibly, in our exhaustion,
treasured, cooed at, then softly left alone
among vast crumples, verticals, refracting air,
our way home barred by mirrors, our splendour unmanifest
to us now, a small wild person, with no idea of peace.
– Les Murray, The Emerald Dove

At the moment I’m reading Sarah Bakewell’s book on Montaigne’s Essays, How to Live, in which she draws attention to Montaigne’s ability to see things from the perspective of animals – a corollary of his questioning of human superiority and desire to see all things from different viewpoints.  She channels Montaigne in these words:

Still we humans persist in thinking of ourselves as separate from all other creatures, closer to gods than to chameleons or parrotfish.  It never occurs to us to rank ourselves among animals, or to put ourselves in their minds.  We barely stop to wonder whether they have minds at all.  Yet, for Montaigne, it is enough to watch a dog dreaming to see that it must have an inner world just like ours. A person who dreams about Rome or Paris conjures up an insubstantial Rome or Paris within: likewise, a dog dreaming about a hare surely sees a disembodied hare running through his dream.  We see this from the twitching of of his paws as he runs after it: a hare is there for him somewhere….

In one passage in the Essays, Montaigne muses on the relationship he has with his cat, seeing it from the cat’s point of view just as readily from his own:

When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her, more than she is to me?  We entertain each other with reciprocal monkey tricks.  If I have my time to begin or refuse, so she has hers.

Sarah Bakewell comments:

All Montaigne’s skills at jumping between perspectives come to the fore when he writes about animals.  We find it hard to understand them, he says, but they must find it just as hard to understand us.  ‘This defect that hinders communication between them and us, why is it not just as much ours as theirs?’

We have some mediocre understanding of their meaning;  so do they of ours, in about the same degree.  They flatter us, threaten us, and implore us, and we them.

Montaigne cannot look at his cat without seeing her looking back at him, and imagining himself as he looks at her.

In his essay, Why Look At Animals, John Berger discusses how, in the centuries since Montaigne wrote, animals have become increasingly marginalized in the world of humans. He remarks how zoos have become virtually the last remaining places where humans go to encounter animals, yet –

The zoo cannot but disappoint. The public purpose of zoos is to offer visitors the opportunity of looking at animals. Yet nowhere in a zoo can a stranger encounter the look of an animal. At the most, the animal’s gaze flickers and passes on. They look sideways. They look blindly beyond. They scan mechanically.  They have been immunized to encounter, because nothing can any more occupy a central place in their attention.

Therein lies the ultimate consequence of their marginalization. That look between animal and man, which may have played a crucial role in the development of human society, and with which, in any case, all men had always lived until less than a century ago, has been extinguished.   Looking at each animal, the   unaccompanied zoo visitor  is   alone.  As for the crowds, they belong to a species which has at last been isolated.

This historic loss, to which zoos are a monument, is now irredeemable for the culture of capitalism.

Returning to my sad pigeon, I found a resonance in this poem by Louis MacNeice.  In reality it’s a poem whose context is the politics of the 1930s and forebodings of coming conflict.  But now, reading ‘The sunlight on the garden/Hardens and grows cold,/We cannot cage the minute/Within its nets of gold’ I recall the moment when ‘ashriek out of jagbeaked fixe fury’ the bird crashed through the glass.  The sky was good for flying.

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.

Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.

The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying

And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden.

– Louis MacNeice – The Sunlight on the Garden

In Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman wrote:

There is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheeled universe.


4 thoughts on “The sky was good for flying

  1. The Louis MacNeice is a great favorite of mine. I recited it unseen at my father’s funeral. It can be understood at several levels. But the last four lines still remind me of the love and shelter my father gave me; and how grateful I remain.

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