Songs for Scientists, Parts I and II

in memoriam J.L.M.

In introducing her poem at the Phi Beta Kappa Literary Exercises on June 6 in Sanders Theatre, Heather McHugh '69 told the audience that it was titled "'Songs for Scientists, Parts I and II'--you'll be glad to learn it's not an epic." She then described its "various sources, one ephemeral--a postcard some of you may have seen, which portrays the Cornell brain collection"--and, for the second section, "an immortal source, the Audubon Guide to North American Birds. It's in memory of my father, who died this year, on my birthday."

I. BRAIN COLLECTOR AT CORNELL

Unhelmeted, formaldehyded, plopped
into their seven separate jars,
the seven human brains appear
immodestly exposed. But no,

they won't give up their privacy.
Grown in a bone bin, now not one of them
can let go of the knot at its gut, the fruit
of its last thought. The sheer detachment's absolute.

I wonder was it you, placed all
these bare brains in a row, so they would face (so
to speak) one way? Below, at the workspace,
a jar is agape. And there you are, as if in love--

in flagrante delicto, a hunch in the flesh,
alive, in your scientist suit, O single-minded
one, with glaring head and glasses and
a handful of sensation's plunder! Do you

prod for God's address? grope to learn
if love survives? hope to know if thunder's
good? Who cares? The seven skies
contain themselves, their brainstorms

dimly understood.

II. ORNITHOLOGUE AT AUDUBON

Given a simple flycatcher, you forked
or scissored it. You sorted birds by
adjective (marbled a godwit, shafted a flicker,
leasted a grebe) and soon the sky itself seemed

liable to fall into rubrics. That's when you dreamed
this other occupation up: setting your snares
for love songs, by the bowerside and brook--
to bring, as if they were theirs, your own callings, back to the

birdbook--where, to
this day, any fool who reads can find
the winged singing things distinguished
chiefly by their expertise in English. Take

the goldfinch. What peculiar flight of fancy
made it say "Potato chips!"? Hadn't it a higher sort
of calling to its name? Or were you, Sir, by any chance,
annuitized by Lay's? You claim a dove inquires

"Who cooks for you?"--(it seems the birds
are food-obsessed); another specimen is heard
to squawk out "Quick! Three beers!" and soon
the vireo appears impatient too, snapping "Quick,

quick, give me the raincheck!" The woods are thick
with poet-types and pollyannas, pleased-to-meetcha
greeters, segue artists gone from food to mood with a chip-
chip-chipper or a sweet-sweet-sweet. One bad Wordsworth

versifies about (not only in) the "Trees, trees, murmuring
trees." No worse are the masochists, pessimists,
tenors from hell--the plover's disheartening "Quit quit quit"
where Inca doves intone "No hope" and thugs hiss "Whip

Tom Kelly." After a hawk has done its "Cutta cutta," what
is left for the dire brown thrasher, really, from whose throat
comes one sharp smack? (To a lover's mind, I guess,
that's more or less a kiss. You did not miss

the courting eider's human-sounding moan, nor, among
warblers, the black-throated blue's own "Please me, please
please squeeze me!")--Estimable Sir! Were you
delirious? or lonely? maybe married? Were

you unacquainted with the word displacement?
Translators are ever undersung. But mark my words,
some serious mis-anthropomorphizing got done
to the hapless chachalaca--best of birds, the one

whose amorous aptitudes
fell into permanent doubt
when its females were quoted
to cry "Keep it up!"--

and its males to reply "Cut it out."

Heather McHugh '69, a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, is Milliman Distinguished Writer in Residence at the University of Washington. Her most recent book is The Father of the Predicaments. Other collections of poems include Dangers and A World of Difference. She has also published a collection of essays, Broken English: Poetry and Partiality, and translations of several works, including Cyclops, by Euripides, and Glottal Stop: 101 Poems by Paul Celan (with co-translator Nikolai Popov).

 

 

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