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The Meaning of Birds by Charlie Smith


Don’t our lives unfold in proportion to our courage, I wrote to someone a few days ago, my heart in my throat, wondering why I’m writing a letter at all.

Every day is an effort to be better at this. Living, I mean. Trying it on like a dress, this being human, which you must be tired of by now, my having talked about it for years and years, I mean.

Why do you keep your struggles out in the open? Why do you wear your heart on your sleeve? What is to be gained in making a fool out of yourself? These are questions I’ve been asked, for which I don’t necessarily have the answers.

I think I promised myself some sort of transformation. A metamorphosis of some kind. Growing into a person that I needed, perhaps. A bird learning to be better at flight.

A wet sparrow, perhaps, as I stand out on the street yesterday, big, fat drops of water on my hair, my face, my shoulders, my back. What is a fool if not someone who forgets umbrellas, knowing full well it’s the season for rain. What is a fool, who laughs and shivers and runs for cover and laughs again, shoes squeaking after having stepped into a puddle.

It’s November now. It’s not too late to be here again, is it?

The Meaning of Birds
Charlie Smith
Of the genesis of birds we know nothing,
save the legend they are descended
from reptiles: flying, snap-jawed lizards
that have somehow taken to air. Better the story
that they were crab-apple blossoms
or such, blown along by the wind; time after time
finding themselves tossed from perhaps a seaside tree,
floated or lifted over the thin blue lazarine waves
until something in the snatch of color
began to flutter and rise. But what does it matter
anyway how they got up high
in the trees or over the rusty shoulders
of some mountain? There they are,
little figments,
animated—soaring. And if occasionally a tern washes up
greased and stiff, and sometimes a cardinal
or a mockingbird slams against the windshield
and your soul goes oh God and shivers
at the quick and unexpected end
to beauty, it is not news that we live in a world
where beauty is unexplainable
and suddenly ruined
and has its own routines. We are often far
from home in a dark town, and our griefs
are difficult to translate into a language
understood by others. We sense the downswing of time
and learn, having come of age, that the reluctant
concessions made in youth
are not sufficient to heat the cold drawn breath
of age. Perhaps temperance
was not enough, foresight or even wisdom
fallacious, not only in conception
but in the thin acts
themselves. So our lives are difficult,
and perhaps unpardonable, and the fey gauds
of youth have, as the old men told us they would,
faded. But still, it is morning again, this day.
In the flowering trees
the birds take up their indifferent, elegant cries.
Look around. Perhaps it isn’t too late
to make a fool of yourself again. Perhaps it isn’t too late
to flap your arms and cry out, to give
one more cracked rendition of your singular, aspirant song.

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This poem appeared in Indistinguishable from the Darkness by Charlie Smith, published by W.W. Norton & Company, 1991. Shared here with profound gratitude.

Read more works by Charlie SmithFind books by this poet • Or view my library

Explore poems in pursuit of: transformationgrowing oldtime • Or browse the index


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Comments (8)

  • manthipe

    No it’s not too late. Come whenever you can.

  • billy

    It’s never too late to share your vibes, your music, your unique perceptions; I’ve missed them, they resonate so much with the space between my beats, my heart sings when reading you……

    I could write about thoughts and reflection, and our minds lack of proprioception, but that would transport me away from where I’d rather be, this bath……

    So here’s a poem (by Cummings) just for you……

    since feeling is first
    who pays any attention
    to the syntax of things
    will never wholly kiss you;

    wholly to be a fool
    while Spring is in the world

    my blood approves,
    and kisses are a better fate
    than wisdom
    lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
    —the best gesture of my brain is less than
    your eyelids’ flutter which says

    we are for each other: then
    laugh, leaning back in my arms
    for life’s not a paragraph

    And death i think is no parenthesis

  • Briana

    I’ve missed floating among your words, those you write & those you cultivate.

    And thank you billy for the lovely cummings.

    I’m grateful for both of you, gifts to the world.

  • Linda Ann

    I have a lump in my throat, your words are pure poetry, I can only look on green-eyed in awe. Inspirational.

  • Ai+

    You don’t know how much this spoke o me.

  • I have the same terrifying thoughts about living.

    What of courage? What constitutes as a courageous act? How many courageous acts? Is once in a while enough?

    But your words give comfort, in the sense that, I’m not alone in my wonder/wander.

    God speed T. Your blog has been helpful for some of my worst days, more so for my best days.

  • Heidi-Marie

    Great reflections 👍


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