February’s Animal Poem: “Theory of Beauty (Grackles on Montrose)” by Mark Doty, from the new section in Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems (2009).
“Theory of Beauty (Grackles on Montrose)” is a thoroughly satisfying descriptive poem (it is of course redundant to say Doty poem and great description in the same sentence), full of sounds. Not all that many poems have a lot of noises, necessarily. Car horns and dog snoring and through-the-wall radio ads and all the rest — it’s noticeable when a poem really pays attention to them.
“Theory of Beauty (Grackles on Montrose)” begins with a place-setting, “Eight o’clock, warm Houston night / and in the parking lot the grackles / hold forth royally, in thick trees.” (This, by the way, is what a grackle looks like.) Three lines and the scene is set, complete with the beginning of the birds’ characterization, with “hold forth royally.”
The main delight of this poem is, of course, the list of sounds the birds make, capitalized and precisely named. Their specificity is simultaneously commonplace and grand (“Drop the Tin Can” is one I love in particular). They’re a mix of factual (“Bad Brakes,” “Slidewhistle into Car Alarm”) and colloquial (“Tea Kettle in Hell”) with only one really abstract one, the “Recalcitrant Double Entry.” As always with a good Doty poem, he’ll use whatever’s at hand in the name of delightful description. It’s his delight, not just the accuracy, in the naming of things, in the communicating of a feeling about a thing, that makes a Doty poem enjoyable.
(Sometimes in spite of itself. Or one could say, he gets away with a lot because of the sheer moving power of witnessing someone else’s joy in something. (I find it really hard not to smile when you see someone geek out, myself.) The puns in “Golden Retrievals,” for instance, or even the ending here, which is too much of a “poet”-y arm-sweeping gesture for me (“polyglot, expansive, awry”). But it works here. (And how else to end a poem like this anyway?))
Doty’s works is full of animal poems (his jellyfish poem, “Difference,” is one of my favorites, and he’s done lovely things with horses and turtles and green crabs and mackerel and more.) Like all of his poems, this one is a nice melange of language and image in appreciation of the shiny moment one can find in the everyday “all up and down / the block from here to the Taco Cabana” and cherish for what it is.