Three Portraits in Feathers

 
The snowy egret in nuptial plumage,
slim S-curve, beak to neck to breast,
wisps of white aigrettes, the Gilded Age
fairy of fashion, bewitched the crests

of ladies’ hats, broad-brimmed winter felt or
summer straw displaying a mania
for ribbons, flowers, above all feathers,
a fin-de-siecle cornucopia

carried careful as a cup atop
the woman’s head, her swanlike neck
immobile (so as not to spill a drop)
foot resting on the pedal, leg cocked

in billowing bloomers, we know
that girl, Gibson’s mannequin, collar
high and white, hat tipped, face so
sparsely drawn, mere touch of illustrator’s

brush, like the egret itself, quite
still amid spring’s gross effulgence,
at once world-weary and innocent, white
on their nests in rookeries of hundreds

where plume hunters sought them, boys
with small-bore rifles so as not to
damage the diaphanous
feathers special to the nesting season, few

adults remaining after they had shot
up to 16,000 in a single venture,
one boy remembered, and the riot
of hungry nestlings left behind fluttered

like pale reeds among the mangroves
(he could not forget it), notice how
a thing is changed completely when it moves,
the gnomelike snowy, in flight, obliquely shows

those nuptials in their full ambient
lightness, as though the air had fashioned
for itself its own sheer garment
from the dreams of a thousand

tiny spiders, and the bird’s golden feet,
too, suddenly visible, touch
of showgirl under the neat
calligraph, and the hatted girls push

forward on their awkward bikes, flex
of muscle subtle under their skirts,
and the boy who can’t forget asks,
laying down his gun, why hurt

us this way, Eden, tempt our eyes
with wonders, then break us
at the taking, we are trying
to be good, and spring’s whiteness

melts slowly into the gold of summer.

 

 

    

Clara McLeanClara McLean lives and teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area. Earlier poems have appeared in Bird’s Thumb, By & By, Berkeley Poetry Review, and Foglifter, among others.
 
Read Clara McLean’s Letter to America poem, “Ghost Spaces,” appearing in Terrain.org.
 
 

Header photo of snowy egret Dori, courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

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2 Responses

  1. Daniel Corrie

    I admire this gracefully unfolding presentation of particulars of wayward human folly moving through the natural world.

  2. Art Goodtimes

    Thank you, Clara. A lovely evocation of a bird, an era, and our changing attitudes toward giving, taking, respect for nature’s effulgence, and the dreams of a thousand tiny spiders…

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