I’ve come across a few poems in the last weeks that have both prompted me to reconsider academic curricula’s singular esteem for Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and left me wishing there were a global poetry anthology titled Inkbrains: several hundred years of being weirded by corvids. I post this poem because it appears unavailable elsewhere online. It appears availably in Jack Davis’s 1977 collection Jagardoo: Poems from Aboriginal Australia.
Mr Crow, I have been occupied with the thought, As to how and what I ought To write of you for some considerable time. You are detestably difficult to place into rhyme. There's no symmetrics in your feathers Or your white-rimmed eye, Your croaks are akin to leather, You are cowardly mean and sly. But when Nature manufactured creatures, Wise she thought of all the features. Now if her realm should all be beauty, Who then would master meaner duty So when you cawed far back in time, First struggled out of primeval slime, Mother Nature paused and said: From this moment I declare You will fly and haunt the air And help me desiccate the dead.
It reads perhaps too simply. But there’s a sonnetic construction (two quatrains and a sestet, with the addition of a terminal quatrain; the turn at “But”) that intersects nicely with the two stanzas’ parallel movements in rhyme (both transition from rhyming couplets to rhyming quatrains). The result, if you’ll make this leap with me, is two partial sonnets assembled into something more than one sonnet. And these two sonnetic conclusions sit juxtaposed without entering synthesis: Mr Crow, you’re ugly, and I’m trying to write a pretty thing; Mr Crow, you do Nature’s work, in which ugliness is necessary.
And the point? Davis’s collection deals with the legacy of colonialism in Australia (notably the early nineteenth-century British declaration that Australian Aboriginal peoples were ‘wards’ of the colonial state), so putting the ugly into a pretty thing without taking the ugliness out of the ugly would be of key concern to him. The social politics of racial stereotyping aren’t hidden far beneath Davis’s unflattering, essentializing, and dismissive description of the ‘crow’ (a common settlement-era Australian slur against Aboriginals), which is underwritten by the dominantly British medium of poetry and its conventions of beauty.
“Mother Nature,” which for those of us inheriting the British tradition has long been poetic cliche, then recuperates Mr Crow not as beautiful but as necessary. This puts me in a strange position as a critical reader: if Mr Crow is being raced as black, using familiar imperial rhetoric about ‘those natives,’ how content can we be with his relegation to custodianship of “the dead”? Or with the paradox that his recuperation-relegation is achieved through the very poetic medium that the Davis of the first stanza denies (however ironically)?
‘The problem is not that poetry can’t handle ugly things, but that poetry, as a discourse, makes things ugly’? That doesn’t seem far off the mark.