Troy Jollimore


What are birds, what can they be if not
objectified thoughts? That scarlet tanager 
an idea about beauty, that American redstart 
the memory of a hotel on the Oregon 
coast, where you stayed for three days, while the things 
you thought you’d understood fell to pieces around you … 

The black-capped chickadee is native to most
of North America, and everywhere its song 
is the same. Everywhere, that is, except 
on Martha’s Vineyard. The black-capped chickadees 
of Martha’s Vineyard sing the standard 
black-capped chickadee song: hey sweetie, 
hey sweetie –but they sing, as well, a pair 
of variations: sweetie hey, sweetie hey, 
and soweetie-sweetie, soweetie-sweetie. 
Recordings exist and can be consulted. 
As for explanations, the human 
researchers who study these things
assure us that they are forthcoming.

First you learn to cause pain, then the task is to learn
to live with having caused pain. There are places
where the mind is permitted to wander unleashed,
and you learn, over time, where the gates are, who keeps them,
under what conditions you will be allowed 
to pass unobstructed. You learn the dialects
of rivers, which gestures in which territories
are taken as insults. Knowledge is stored
in the brain in folds of tissue, as is
the memory of your first lover’s face,
the melody line of “Someone to Watch
Over Me,” and your opinion as to which
of the dozen or so versions of that song
you have heard is the sweetest, the most beautiful,
the most haunting. Though of course your opinion 
is subject to change, to a minor rearrangement 
of the tissues, one that might be caused 
by a shower of petals, an oddly placed word 
in an argument with a friend, or happening 
to hear that song on the radio 
while driving while cruising the stations or in 
a quiet, slightly musty Parisian café  
that you ducked into only to try to escape from
the spatter of rain that came out of the sky
with no warning, from nowhere at all. Sweetie, hey.

The nightingale, Pliny writes, is “the only 
bird the notes of which are modulated 
according to the strict principles 
of musical  science.” Each one, he goes on
to tell us, has its own repertoire 
of songs, deployed in the musical battles 
they conduct against one another. “The vanquished one 
frequently perishes in the contest, 
and would rather yield its life than its song.”

The part of me that would like to believe this
has taken to walking the creekside trails
late in the evening, when the darkening sky 
turns shade after deepening shade of blue, 
hoping to meet, by chance, if chance 
is the word, the twilit part of you 
that would also like to believe this, which 
is also the part, if I’m not mistaken, 
that wishes it could love something, anything, 
with the same unembarrassed rush of passion 
the dying nightingale feels for its song. 
The part of you that stood in the open 
doorway in a white dress and said 
You can talk about love all you like, you’re a poet.
You’d rather sing about it than live through it.

What I know is this: when you are done learning 
how to cause pain, which you never are, 
you learn how not to, which you never do.

And what I know is this: early this morning, 
in the branches of my neighbor’s oleander, 
I saw a spot of flame, a spark-red 
northern cardinal, out of place 
and out of season. Surely, my love,
that has to count for something.