Of Symbols and Sparrows

Although Portlandia made “put a bird on it” famous, poets are often warned to stay away from using birds in their writing. Yet I have had the good fortune to have new poems appear online over the last two days, and, by strange coincidence, both poems end with an image of sparrows rising.

“Foreclosure Pastoral” in Flyway: A Journal of Writing and Environment ends:  “on a far hillside, a host of sparrows rising.”  

“After the Fires, A Nightmare” in The Dialogist ends: “a column building – a plume of sparrows rises.”

These poems were written at very different times, and believe it or not, the use of the rising sparrows was both specific in intent and meaning for each poem.

In “Foreclosure Pastoral,” a family farm is being lost. Sparrows often nest in the roofs and walls of homes, and they are also considered signs of death in some cultures if they get inside the home. In a poem about deterioration and loss, they seemed like the perfect birds to be harbingers of that loss.

A slightly different take in “After the Fires, A Nightmare.” In Egyptian folklore, sparrows are ferrymen who take the souls of the dead to heaven. This is why sailors often got tattoos of sparrows, in the hope that their souls would be caught and carried to heaven if they were lost at sea. At the end of this poem, the speaker almost cannot bear the thought of any happy thing after a cataclysmic event – the plume of sparrows here is the hope for redemption.

I’m not a big fan of explaining my choices in poems, but since two poems appearing within a day of one another used almost identical ending images, I found myself wanting to discuss those choices somewhere. So there you are. And go ahead and put birds in your poems, poets: wings, feathers, beaks, fragile bones, twitters and flutterings. You know why you’re doing it. That’s all that matters.


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