Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Ovid's Birds

I have been reading about the hoopoe. Tereus was turned into one and, according to a translator of Ovid, 'An immoderate elongated beak juts out, like a long spear. The name of the bird is the hoopoe and it looks as though it is armed,'

This fits in with Wikipedia notes which describe the bird as 'a solitary forager. which usually feeds on the ground' and has such strong muscles in its head that its bill can be opened when it is inserted into the ground. This bill is also used as a weapon for a hoopoe is known to stab its rivals in flight.

A savage and powerful bird, a counterpart to the revengeful, desperate Tereus pursuing the nightingale and swallow through the forest for which there is no way out.

So far the legend. But in other cultures the hoopoe has a higher status - sacred in Ancient Egypt and Minoan Crete, the wisest of the birds in Persian literature, granted protection in countries where its diet of the pupae of the processionary moth helps the forests to survive.

This sudden interest in the hoopoe has come out of last night's workshop led by the gifted poet Jackie Wills who took the Slipstream, Poets on a short exploration of the world of translation - ancient and modern. I was particularly taken by Moniza Alvi's poems 'after' Jules Supervielle and need to read more but it was the Ovid that has hooked me most.

But not so much Tereus,  although today I seem to be following  the hoopoe's path - but Philomel, the agony of her transformation, her human voice ravaged and squeezed into the nightingale's song. I haven't included it in my poem but the image in my head was of a stroke victim or one in a coma who cannot speak the words that must be scorching the brain.

This is what I wrote last night:

Your throat is strangling from within
your epiglottis silted in hard breath.
What recompense are feathers now
of soft and forest brown, or melodies
that tease a poet's muse?
Forever dumb your human voice
like one small bird
must beat inside its cage.

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