One of the many pleasures possible in poetry is seeing something you’ve seen your whole life in a new way. Such is one of the gifts of Laura Jensen’s “The Sparrows of Iowa,” published in her amazing (and hard to get ahold of) 1977 book Bad Boats. From the second of three stanzas:
[…] for the sparrows
of Iowa, listed as if no more exist.
They have long been with all of us,
chattering the bushes, ponderous,
and never been vermin. Their legs
are the dry bit you snip absently
from a houseplant — […]
How exactly perfect is that for a bird’s leg, “the dry bit you snip absently from a houseplant”! This is one of those poems that I won’t be able to avoid thinking of when I see a sparrow hopping about from now on.
Later on in the poem (which is three stanzas, 21 lines total), the sparrows are likened to a list of things, which ends the poem:
[…] and they were
the birds to originate warmth near the heart —
they were the notes on the flute —
the innocent liking for crumbs
the percher on the chimney
the smoke that goes out to look.
Jensen’s poems are full of these sorts of never-would-have-thought of/exactly-right descriptions, which is what I’m focusing on for this month’s Animals post, but it’s the edge to her poems — the turns you don’t expect but that work, completely work, but are not especially explicable, the complicated intricacies of grammar and nuance — that really makes people who read Laura Jensen say ‘oh you should read Laura Jensen.’
For instance, in the first stanza, “There is a secret in the miniature grass / that the sun will fall again and again / and the bats will weigh onto the neck, / tremble to the hair […].” The secret is revealed in the second line, and isn’t really a secret in the first place. The poem then, after the you-can-feel-them-on-your-neck bit about bats, says, “and if it is not you it will not matter. / It will be me, or one of the cattle.” (Sidenote: I love that matter/cattle near rhyme). Straightforward enough, but the beginning of the second stanza, just before the bit about not being vermin and having houseplant-bit legs, uses the word “it” for the third time in three lines in yet another grammatical usage, “It will be an answer for the sparrows / of Iowa […].” “It will not matter,” then “It will be me” then “It will be an answer.” The “it”s all function correctly, grammatically, but it’s a pretty deft sleight of hand there, how what “it” refers to moves around.
That’s just one of the things I mean about turns, and edge, in her work. A longer post on Jensen is coming soon, because you really should read Laura Jensen.