The Starlings

Jesper Svenbro

Translated by John Matthias and Lars-Håkan Svensson
 
Late one afternoon in October
I hear them for the first time:
loud-voiced palavering, whistles, murmurs,
quarrels, bickering and warbling, croaking and chatter
in the high plane trees of the street.
The leaves are all turning yellow this time of year,
causing huge yellow sunlit rooms
to appear at the level of the fifth and sixth floors
opposite the barracks, where the tram turns off
from the Via delle Milizie.
Solid branches, twigs, and perches:
every bit of space is taken up in this parliament of starlings!
They are tightly bunched together there among the leaves;
and the hundreds of thousands of starlings
that perform their flying exercises
against the backdrop of the evening's mass of motionless cloud
will surely soon have lost their places:
there are myriads of swarming punctuation marks out there,
starlings flying in formation,
sudden sharp turns, steep ascents,
swarm on delightful swarm
against a rosy cloud bank in the east.
The October evening is cool.
The shop windows of the Via Ottaviano are shining.
And the starlings are chattering, quarreling and laughing,
whispering and quietly enjoying themselves, when suddenly
a blustering as of ten thousand pairs of sharp-edged scissors
passes through the republic of the plains--
it is as though an alarm had sounded,
heard as an echo over the muffled traffic.
Soon the darkness of night will fall.
But the starlings up there won't stop talking,
they move together, push one another, chatter and flit.
Virgil must have had them in mind when somewhere he likens
the souls of the deceased to flights of birds
which toward sundown
abandon the mountains and gather in high trees.
I seem to be standing in an Underworld
in the midst of a swarm of birds.
The block is Virgilian; the street is crossed
by the Viale Giulio Cesare,
where you lived
for some time before you died.
That's why I am stopping here.
The souls of the dead have gathered in the trees.
Their number is incredible, suddenly it seems ghastly;
is this what it will be like?
For a moment I am a prisoner
of the poem I am writing.
There must be an exit.
The soldier coming up to me
has noticed that I have been standing
for quite some time looking up into the foliage--
into the darkness of feathers, bird's eyes, and beaks.
The peasant boy inside him apprises me
of the fact that starlings come in vast migrations
"from Poland and Russia"
to spend the winter in the south:
"And things go very well for them!
In the daytime they fly out to the countryside
and spend the night in here,"
he explains with great amusement, turning his gaze
up toward the swarm of birds. Their anxiety seems to have ceased;
in just a moment they all seem to have fallen asleep.
Only single chirps and clucks are heard
from starlings talking in their sleep.
What are they dreaming of? Ten thousand starlings are dreaming in the
darkness
about the sunlight over the fields.
As for myself, I am thinking of the tranquility
in certain restaurants in the countryside,
in the Albano Mountains and on the Campagna--
the tranquility at noon on a sunny day in October.
I am filled with the clarity of the fall day.
And am touched by something immeasurable, transparent,
which I cannot describe at first
but must be everything we never said to each other.
There are so many things I'd like to say.
How shall I be able to speak?
Today you are not shade, you are light.
And in the poem I am writing you will be my guest.
We are going to talk about Digenís Akrítas,
the Byzantine heroic poem
with the strangely compelling rhythm;
and since the manuscript of the poem
is preserved in the monastery at Grottaferrata
I shall order wine from Grottaferrata,
golden and shimmering in its carafe;
we shall talk about the miraculously translucent autumn poem by Petronius
which appears first in Ekelöf's Elective Affinities;
and about Ekelöf's poems, to which you devoted such attention.
Did Ekelöf ever come to Grottaferrata?
I seem to detect your lively gaze.
And we shall see how the starlings come flying
across the fields in teeming swarms.
They will come from Rome and spend the day out here
where they will eat snails, worms, and seeds
and suddenly they will fly up from a field
as at a given signal
and make us look into the sun.

In Memoriam Ludovica Koch (1941-93)

 
From Three-Toed Gull: Selected Poems by Jesper Svenbro, translated by John Matthias and Lars-Håkan Svensson. English translation copyright © 2003 by Northwestern University Press. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Further Reading

Poems about Birds
Tender Buttons [Chicken]
by Gertrude Stein
Littlefoot, 19, [This is the bird hour]
by Charles Wright
Rocket Fantastic [excerpt]
by Gabrielle Calvocoressi
The Scarlet Ibis, Section VII
by Susan Hahn
A Bird came down the Walk (328)
by Emily Dickinson
A Bird in Hand
by Amber Flora Thomas
A Peacock in Spring
by Joyelle McSweeney
Albatross in Co. Antrim
by Robin Robertson
Birdcall
by Alicia Suskin Ostriker
Birding at the Dairy
by Sidney Wade
Birds Again
by Jim Harrison
Birds Appearing In A Dream
by Michael Collier
Black bird, red wing
by Nickole Brown
Darwin's Finches
by Deborah Digges
Dispatches from Devereux Slough
by Mark Jarman
Dove, Interrupted
by Lucie Brock-Broido
Evening Hawk
by Robert Penn Warren
Ground Birds in Open Country
by Stanley Plumly
Gulls
by William Carlos Williams
Hardware Sparrows
by R. T. Smith
Home to Roost
by Kay Ryan
Hope is the thing with feathers (254)
by Emily Dickinson
Hummingbird
by Elaine Terranova
I am Like a Desert Owl, an Owl Among the Ruins
by Noelle Kocot
If the Owl Calls Again
by John Haines
In Flight
by Jennifer K. Sweeney
In the Memphis Airport
by Timothy Steele
Interlude
by Edith Sitwell
Last Night I Dreamed of Chickens
by Jack Prelutsky
Leda and the Swan
by W. B. Yeats
Leda, After the Swan
by Carl Phillips
Let Birds
by Linda Gregg
My Mother Would Be a Falconress
by Robert Duncan
Ode to a Nightingale
by John Keats
Paper Swallow
by Stanley Moss
Poet as Immortal Bird
by Ron Padgett
Red-Legged Kittiwake
by Emily Wilson
Revision in My Wife's Powder Room
by Lauren Berry
Small Study
by Emily Wilson
Song of the Owl
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Sympathy
by Paul Laurence Dunbar
The Darkling Thrush
by Thomas Hardy
The Eagle
by Lord Alfred Tennyson
The Heron
by Linda Hogan
The Life So Short...
by Eamon Grennan
The Nightingale
by Sir Philip Sidney
The Parakeets
by Alberto Blanco
The Raven
by Edgar Allan Poe
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The Sparrow
by Gerald Stern
The Windhover
by Gerard Manley Hopkins
The Yellow Bittern (An Bunnan Bui)
by Cathal Bui Mac Giolla Gunna
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
by Wallace Stevens
Three Moves
by John Logan
Tigers
by Melissa Ginsburg
To a Skylark
by Percy Bysshe Shelley
To a Waterfowl
by William Cullen Bryant
White Stork
by Michael Waters
Wild Swans
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Poems about Buildings
Architecture Moraine
by Joanna Fuhrman
Block City
by Robert Louis Stevenson
Broadway
by Mark Doty
Cape Coast Castle
by Yusef Komunyakaa
Glass House
by Heather McHugh
Notes on a Visit to Le Tuc D'Audoubert
by Clayton Eshleman
Skyscraper
by Matt Rasmussen
Steps
by Grace Schulman
The Barcelona Inside Me
by Robin Becker
The Parallel Cathedral
by Tom Sleigh
Water Picture
by May Swenson