Monday, August 31, 2009

A BIRD, A POEM, A BOOK


One morning a few days ago, as I stepped out to water the plant on my front stoop, I found a small bird lying dead at my feet. It looked like one of the smaller Eastern flycatchers, perhaps a Willow or a Least. The color in the photo isn’t very accurate; the bird was much more olive and yellow on its back and breast. Holding its lifeless body, I thought of the opening lines from a poem from one of my favorite pieces of literature, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, for this surely was the flycatcher’s fate:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the window pane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff - and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky

For those who may not know the book, Pale Fire is a slim novel by Vladimir Nabokov, consisting of the ‘final poem’ of a fictional poet, John Shade, the annotations to that poem by another character in the story, and the interweaving the two. But that’s just the barest of descriptions. There’s so much more to it. And searching online I found another layer that deepens my enjoyment and appreciation of Pale Fire: the essay, "Shades of Frost: A Hidden source for Nabokov’s Pale Fire" by Abraham P. Socher. This essay brought to light both Nabokov’s and Pale Fire’s connection to my long-time favorite poet, Robert Frost. Socher traces this connection (and sometimes the competition) between the two contemporary giants, and offers fascinating insights into the inner workings of Pale Fire’s construction. Nabokov heavily salted all his works with sophisticated clues, puns and puzzles, playful oblique references, and half-buried linguistic treasures. Some of his gems were probably designed for his own enjoyment alone, to satisfy some private inner sense of creative rightness, but many lie less hidden, like Easter eggs partially tucked away in a garden, to challenge and reward readers and critics alike.

The essay holds Pale Fire along side Frost’s poem, Questioning Faces (or Of a Winter Evening, its original title), about an owl that flies at a windowpane, only to veer off in time to save itself. Socher delves into the creative process, the cross-pollination of literary art, and even gives a bit of delightful trivia —Nabokov once lived in Frost’s house. I would recommend this ESSAY to anyone with an interest in the English language, novels, poetry, Nabokov, Frost, and to anyone who reads this and may feel the tug of wanting to know more.

In addition to a copy of Pale Fire, I have two small volumes of Frost’s poems—one inexpensive paperback I bought as a cash-strapped student, so old now that the pages are darkly yellowed, the glued spine is cracked, with the loose pages falling out. The other is in better shape, but slimmer. Neither includes the poem about the owl. I carried the fallen flycatcher around to the lake side of the house, and placed it on the juniper bush beside the Buddha statue, then went back to the computer and ordered myself a brand new hardcover book of Frost’s Complete Poems, a purchase long overdue.

15 comments:

Aleta said...

I haven't read Frost since college. Thank you for this post. His work is always something that makes me feel closer to nature.

So sad about the bird. Poor thing...

bobbie said...

Sad little bird.

That essay was quite a read. I haven't immersed myself in something like that for a long, long time. I'm exhausted.

I do love Frost.

Betsy from Tennessee said...

Sorry about the little bird. Wonder what happened. Did he hit your window/house/door???? We had one die once that hit our sliding door. It's always sad.

Love Frost's poems. It's been awhile though since reading them.

Hope you are having a great day.
Hugs,
Betsy

SandyCarlson said...

That sad little bird. All I know is I want to read Pale Fire now.

Sylvia K said...

Poor little guy! So sad!

Frost has been a favorite for a long time. And I do want to read Pale Fire!

Thanks for the tips!

Have a great week, Deborah!

Sylvia

magiceye said...

the birdie must be fluttering happily in bird heaven now...
beautifully narrated....

Ruth said...

So sad to find the little bird, one I have never seen alive. Have you noticed the new anthology of Canadian nature poetry? It is on my wish list at Amazon.

Open Wide a Wilderness: Canadian Nature Poems

Lin said...

interesting post-wonder what happened to the bird. maybe he flew into a window? I would always wonder about bird flu and not pick it up but that's me. any death especially in nature touches us deeply.

fourwindsphotojournal said...

My husband would know about that volume of poems. He definitely reads better stuff than I do. But, I do love Frost, and feel a kinship with his work.

By the way, my daughter and grandsons are Frosts, but no relation to the poet. She is a pretty good poet in her own right, though.

Sorry to hear about the bird. I know it happens, but it always makes me feel bad.

Shelley said...

Sounds like a really good read! I've had 2 birds hit my window at the cabin and die recently. I've been putting up suncatchers and window decals to prevent it from happening again. It really broke my heart!

Quiet Paths said...

A beautiful post about poets, books and extinguished life on the door step. Pale Fire, gosh it's been awhile. Must go back...

Sue said...

thank you so much, I will definitely have to add Nabokov's book to my reading list!

mom/caryn said...

I find it tough to believe that Nabokov's Pale Fire could be any more beautifully written than your post. I found your words to be intoxicating. I ran off a copy to re-read later. I know... not very "green" of me.

I certainly am more than merely "prompted" to grab a copy of Pale Fire wherever I can find it and make it a favorite.

I am also a fan or Robert Frost.
I come from a long line of Frosts. As a matter of fact, my great grandfather's full name was John Frost Hubbard, and he went by "Frost" his entire life.
hmmmm, could that be where my son gets his abundant poetic talent? I may have to do some research.

Kathiesbirds said...

Wow, what a story! How sad about the dead bird, how wonderful about the poetry. I have not heard of Nobokov but you have me interested now! I do have Frost's complete poems. It's still packed in a box from my latest move however! This is a wonderful post!

Rachel Fox said...

We have a large front window and it takes its victims quite regularly I'm afraid!

I read Nabokov when I was far too young to follow it, I think. Must go back.

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