Western Elegies III: The Hoopoe


Migrations of birds are always northbound or southbound;
Westward and eastward fire-birds alone take wing,
Feng Huan and Zhar-ptitsa, false dawn and fabulous sunset,
Fly towards each other, brush luminous pinions in passing,
And cry as they clash in the strident clangour of eagles:
Brother we blaze alone in phantasmata of the poets!

Had you been reared, my phoenix, on the fortunate isle of Formosa,
As I on the mournful landfall that fell so fair for Van Diemen
We might have nested as neighbours summer by winterless summer,
Lenience of latitude then would have brought us together
But longitude daunts our endeavour as it daunted George Psalmanazar
George who flared out as a poet and finished a commonplace liar,

George babbled Gobbledegook and called it Formosan
Which Archbishop Tillotson took for the true tongue of Babel;
But we must interpret from pentecost tongues our occasions
Of ordinary love, our daily bread of communion.
Left with our mythical messengers, how shall we manage
This difficult to-and-fro of the heart’s correspondence?

How to translate into fire-bird language the trivial
Round of my days, the chaff and chores of my office,
The lunch with a friend, the trip to the dump or the market,
The gastric attack or the Old Boys’ annual dinner?
Birds of the empyrean discourse in a nobler language
But hands are not warmed, nor hearts, by the austere converse of angels.

And you too, ruling your roost and rearing your fledglings,
Trudging through scribble, preaching to birds like St Francis,
Emu and owl and the duck and the gullible dodo,
Who listen with ornithological incomprehension
As you speak from the flame of yourself with the accents of Sakyamuni
I think of you laughing or busy or withdrawn in the house of reflection.

Fire-birds link spirit to spirit but cannot compass the union
Of hands, the lively caress of voices exalted in greeting,
Ardour of eyes that speak without words and kiss without touching.
For that we rely on fowls of the air, birds of mere feather,
Friendly in flesh who carry real meat to the prophets
And bring the great Queen of the South to Solomon’s chamber.

Though the Book of the Glory of Kings and the Bible are silent,
The noble Qur’an tells the tale of the ant and the hoopoe
Upupa epops, to give him his style and his title—
How he ferried their words to-and-fro through the whole Arabian desert,
The words of Sulaiman ibn Da’ood and the mistress of Marib, Makeda,
Till she journeyed to see him at last and she bore him the lion of Judah.

Legends and tales, my heart, tales and improbable legends!
The desert between us is greater than that between Solomon’s army
And Balkis who came to his arms through the wastes of the Empty Quarter
Rub’al-Khalib to An-Nafud—and I have no wisdom, no cantrips
To marshal the afreets and djinns or palaver in birdsong
Though I call like that king for my hoopoe, the hoopoe is missing.

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