1 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 … 2 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. 3 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. 4 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. 5 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.