The Kingfishers

By Charles Olson 1910–1970 Charles Olson
1
 
What does not change / is the will to change
 
He woke, fully clothed, in his bed. He
remembered only one thing, the birds, how
when he came in, he had gone around the rooms
and got them back in their cage, the green one first,
she with the bad leg, and then the blue,
the one they had hoped was a male
 
Otherwise? Yes, Fernand, who had talked lispingly of Albers & Angkor Vat.
He had left the party without a word. How he got up, got into his coat,
I do not know. When I saw him, he was at the door, but it did not matter,
he was already sliding along the wall of the night, losing himself
in some crack of the ruins. That it should have been he who said, “The kingfishers!
who cares
for their feathers
now?”
 
His last words had been, “The pool is slime.” Suddenly everyone,
ceasing their talk, sat in a row around him, watched
they did not so much hear, or pay attention, they
wondered, looked at each other, smirked, but listened,
he repeated and repeated, could not go beyond his thought
“The pool    the kingfishers’ feathers were wealth    why
did the export stop?”
 
It was then he left
 
 
2
 
I thought of the E on the stone, and of what Mao said
la lumiere”
                    but the kingfisher
de l’aurore”
                    but the kingfisher flew west
est devant nous!
                    he got the color of his breast
                    from the heat of the setting sun!
 
The features are, the feebleness of the feet (syndactylism of the 3rd & 4th digit)
the bill, serrated, sometimes a pronounced beak, the wings
where the color is, short and round, the tail
inconspicuous.
 
But not these things were the factors. Not the birds.
The legends are
legends. Dead, hung up indoors, the kingfisher
will not indicate a favoring wind,
or avert the thunderbolt. Nor, by its nesting,
still the waters, with the new year, for seven days.
It is true, it does nest with the opening year, but not on the waters.
It nests at the end of a tunnel bored by itself in a bank. There,
six or eight white and translucent eggs are laid, on fishbones
not on bare clay, on bones thrown up in pellets by the birds.
 
                                                   On these rejectamenta
(as they accumulate they form a cup-shaped structure) the young are born.
And, as they are fed and grow, this nest of excrement and decayed fish becomes
                                                              a dripping, fetid mass
 
Mao concluded:
                   nous devons
                                       nous lever
                                                         et agir!
 
 
3
 
When the attentions change / the jungle
leaps in
             even the stones are split
                                             they rive
 
Or,
enter
that other conqueror we more naturally recognize
he so resembles ourselves
 
But the E
cut so rudely on that oldest stone
sounded otherwise,
was differently heard
 
as, in another time, were treasures used:
 
(and, later, much later, a fine ear thought
a scarlet coat)
 
                       “of green feathers    feet, beaks and eyes
                        of gold
 
                       “animals likewise,
                        resembling snails
 
                       “a large wheel, gold, with figures of unknown four-foots,
                        and worked with tufts of leaves, weight
                        3800 ounces
 
                       “last, two birds, of thread and featherwork, the quills
                        gold, the feet
                        gold, the two birds perched on two reeds
 
                        gold, the reeds arising from two embroidered mounds,
                        one yellow, the other
                        white.
 
                                     “And from each reed hung
                                      seven feathered tassels.
 
In this instance, the priests
(in dark cotton robes, and dirty,
their disheveled hair matted with blood, and flowing wildly
over their shoulders)
rush in among the people, calling on them
to protect their gods
 
And all now is war
where so lately there was peace,
and the sweet brotherhood, the use
of tilled fields.
 
 
4
 
Not one death but many,
not accumulation but change, the feed-back proves, the feed-back is
the law
 
                 Into the same river no man steps twice
                 When fire dies air dies
                 No one remains, nor is, one
 
Around an appearance, one common model, we grow up
many. Else how is it,
if we remain the same,
we take pleasure now
in what we did not take pleasure before? love
contrary objects? admire and / or find fault? use
other words, feel other passions, have
nor figure, appearance, disposition, tissue
the same?
         To be in different states without a change
         is not a possibility
 
We can be precise. The factors are
in the animal and / or the machine the factors are
communication and / or control, both involve
the message. And what is the message? The message is
a discrete or continuous sequence of measurable events distributed in time
 
is the birth of the air, is
the birth of water, is
a state between
the origin and
the end, between
birth and the beginning of
another fetid nest
 
is change, presents
no more than itself
 
And the too strong grasping of it,
when it is pressed together and condensed,
loses it
 
This very thing you are
 
 
                                                II
 
                  They buried their dead in a sitting posture
                  serpent    cane    razor   ray of the sun
 
                  And she sprinkled water on the head of my child, crying
                  “Cioa-coatl! Cioa-coatl!”
                  with her face to the west
 
                Where the bones are found, in each personal heap
                with what each enjoyed, there is always
                the Mongolian louse
 
The light is in the east. Yes. And we must rise, act. Yet
in the west, despite the apparent darkness (the whiteness
which covers all), if you look, if you can bear, if you can, long enough
 
                       as long as it was necessary for him, my guide
                       to look into the yellow of that longest-lasting rose
 
so you must, and, in that whiteness, into that face, with what candor, look
 
and, considering the dryness of the place
              the long absence of an adequate race
 
                   (of the two who first came, each a conquistador, one healed, the other
                   tore the eastern idols down, toppled
                   the temple walls, which, says the excuser
                   were black from human gore)
 
hear
hear, where the dry blood talks
         where the old appetite walks
 
                                                                   la piu saporita et migliore
                                                                   che si possa truovar al mondo
 
where it hides, look
in the eye how it runs
in the flesh / chalk
 
                       but under these petals
                       in the emptiness
                       regard the light, contemplate
                       the flower
 
whence it arose
 
               with what violence benevolence is bought
               what cost in gesture justice brings
               what wrongs domestic rights involve
               what stalks
               this silence
 
               what pudor pejorocracy affronts
               how awe, night-rest and neighborhood can rot
               what breeds where dirtiness is law
               what crawls
               below
 
 
                                                    III
 
                      I am no Greek, hath not th’advantage.
                      And of course, no Roman:
                      he can take no risk that matters,
                      the risk of beauty least of all.
 
                      But I have my kin, if for no other reason than
                      (as he said, next of kin) I commit myself, and,
                      given my freedom, I’d be a cad
                      if I didn’t. Which is most true.
 
                      It works out this way, despite the disadvantage.
                      I offer, in explanation, a quote:
                      si j’ai du goût, ce n’est guères
                      que pour la terre et les pierres.
 
                      Despite the discrepancy (an ocean    courage    age)
                      this is also true: if I have any taste
                      it is only because I have interested myself
                      in what was slain in the sun
 
                              I pose you your question:
 
                      shall you uncover honey / where maggots are?
 
                              I hunt among stones

Charles Olson, “The Kingfishers” from The Collected Poems of Charles Olson.  Copyright © 1987 by the Regents of the University of California. Reprinted with the permission of University of California Press.

Source: The Collected Poems of Charles Olson (University of California Press, 1987)

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Poet Charles Olson 1910–1970

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

SCHOOL / PERIOD Black Mountain

Subjects Living, Nature, Animals, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, The Mind

Poetic Terms Free Verse

Biography

Charles Olson was an innovative poet and essayist whose work influenced numerous other writers during the 1950s and 1960s. In his influential essay on projective (or open) verse, Olson asserts that "a poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. Okay. Then the poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy-construct . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Living, Nature, Animals, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, The Mind

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

SCHOOL / PERIOD Black Mountain

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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