The Man Who Watched Birds
For Jim Hubbard
He hadn’t grown up among birds except
for the chicken his mother baked each Friday.
His parents called anything that flew
into the yard a sparrow, that is
if it wasn’t a robin—distinguished
by the red patch pinned like a heart to its chest.
It wasn’t until he entered the dark
wood of middle age that he learned
to tell a warbler from a wren,
a cardinal from a towhee,
or figured out that by standing
in the right spot he could spy
an entire bestiary floating overhead,
or that all he needed was to transfer
to the avian world
the skills he’d developed in his youth
for watching men to discover
in binocular observation a pleasure
that was, if somewhat less intense,
at least as gratifying.
As easily as he learned to differentiate Juan
from Billy or Gabriel by their outlines
on the dance floor so he could tell
the various raptors by their silhouettes
as they sailed across the opalescent sky.
And the birds were just as untouchable,
just as remote, just as habitual and impulsive
as the men he’d followed at a distance.
He enjoyed the bird’s sexlessness.
Of course he could tell male from female
in some species by their size, color and crest,
but they didn’t grow those jangling genitalia,
the balls and breasts, that made the differences
between man and woman so obvious.
He liked to imagine birds as pure spirit,
skimming the tops of waves and mountains,
their eyes peeled for the helpless below,
whom they’d raise up and gracefully swallow.
He kept a list of sightings as he had recorded
every glimpse he got of Billy or Gabriel.
Juan lived in the neighborhood,
and he saw him almost daily
saluting him like the red-tailed hawk
by slightly dipping his head.
He identified others on a seasonal basis,
as they migrated to breeding grounds.
A whole cadre of new faces appeared
each summer in the Pines,
like the ruby-throated hummingbird
who’d found its way to his balcony
to sip his red-flowered vine.
He’d known a boy like that,
slender as a wafer, a needle-sharp nose,
hands fluttering so swiftly they seemed to disappear,
zig-zagging through the streets, but knowing
exactly what he wanted— a strange and beautiful boy
who died like so many after a year or two.
Somewhere he had his name written down.
He had pages of them, their numbers reassigned,
their apartments refurbished and resold
at twice their former value. It took years
to exhaust the local habitats, but eventually
he was forced to find birding spots
further and further off, exotic sanctuaries
that required passports and days of hiking to get to.
Recently he marched all night through a cloud forest,
slogging through knee-deep mud to arrive
at the only place in the world
a species of hawk gathers to multiply.
They shrieked like Wagnerian tenors
for the rare female ready to be entertained.
Love me, love me. I am better than all the rest!
they cried in their limited vocabulary,
each sounding exactly like the other. And who
could choose among them, they were all so marvelous.
But not finding any mate, the boys flew off
sometimes in pairs, mostly alone, to catch
whatever they could rustle up from the mist,
He stood in wonder at the base of the cliff,
his arms stretched outward
as if he could lay his hands on their extended wings
and caress them for once as they took flight,
buoyed by the light, cool drafts of dawn.
David Bergman is the author of four books of poetry including Fortunate Light (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2013), Heroic Measures (Ohio State, 1998), The Care and Treatment of Pain (Kairos Editions, 1994), and Cracking the Code (Ohio State, 1986), winner of the George Elliston Poetry Prize. He edited John Ashbery’s Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957-1987 (Knopf, 1989) and Edmund White’s The Burning Library: Essays (Vintage, 1995) as well as Gay American Autobiography: Writings from Whitman to Sedaris (University of Wisconson, 2009). Men on Men 2000 (Plume, 2000), which he co-edited with Karl Woelz, won the Lambda Literary Award for Best Literary Anthology. Most recently, he published The Poetry of Disturbance: The Discomforts of Postwar American Poetry (Cambridge, 2015). He is currently editing The Cambridge History of American Gay Poetry. David’s poetry has appeared in Kenyon Review, Yale Review, Poetry, and The Paris Review, among other journals. He lives in Baltimore and teaches at Towson University.
This poem is previously unpublished.