Each drawer contained a bird. When she turned the key she
discovered the rows of tiny cloaks. ‘I had wanted to describe
each bone and feather. But I was distracted by the silence of
the forest, its resemblance to a sky in which the brightest
stars are missing or faint.’ She tried to coax the clockwork
bird into song by oiling its voice box, but when she set the
gears in motion the silver throat had no pulse.
1 If tables could be made to talk, then why not sofas and candelabras? Chandeliers multiplied, eclipsing starlight. A passion for music boxes in every room.
2 If only the long, curved beaks of the females had not resembled ivory, sparking an immoderate desire for brooches, adorned with tiny chains. The last pair of laughing owls were sent as a gift to a collector, and vanished in the darkness of the museum.
Notes for a History of Birdsong
1 The poem, which documents the appearance of a flock of starlings from inside a snowstorm, is regarded as a symbol of the poet’s desire to be emulated.
2 The use of pins and a cylinder to impersonate a bird call was an aspect of Freemasonry. Initially concealed within cuckoo clocks or other timepieces, by 1820 the intricate mechanism was visible to the audience, displayed under glass in increasingly ornate cases.
3 While the influence of clouds on romanticism is well-known, less attention has been paid to ornithology. The significance of ‘hovering’ for example, or a belief in the immortality of the song. Reproduced by way of perforated rolls or folded books, in the end it hardly mattered whether the poet was awake or sleeping.
4 Derived from the word for ‘finch’. Versions of this instrument include the merline, pitched to the vocal range of blackbirds, and the turtelaine, which imitated a curlew.
5 While their wings enabled them to rise above the material signifier, critics note that for the sake of the lyric the bird itself must remain dark or unseen. Also that by the end of the poem, the actual bird has been replaced by a symbol.
6 The identification of women with caged birds is a cliché of eighteenth-century art. A confusion over the meaning of ‘captivation’ has been blamed for their obsession with hunting. For a complementary discussion of whether or not the bird can ever escape the cage of representation, see Appendix 1.
7 The location of the syrinx where the trachea forks into the lungs gave rise to the misleading belief that the bird sang from its heart.
8 A reference to Mozart’s starling. While the song is reputed to have been the inspiration for the sestina, one should never discount the influence of troubadour poetry on the diction of the envoi.
Alison Glenny is a Pākeha (non-indigenous), queer writer from Aotearoa/New Zealand. Her Antarctic-themed collection of prose poems and fragments The Farewell Tourist was published by Otago University Press in 2018.