Expelled from the noontide nap
to pick at gnats, all nervous
nonchalance foraging in foliage,
living on a budget of traveler’s luck:
so Alex Wilson came to Philadelphia—
journeyman weaver, silk peddler, sharpshooter— biased,almost from infancy, by a fondnessfor birds.
I take his word for it. One summer
camping near the Great Egg Harbor River
our teachers devised a snipe hunt (a.k.a. a wild
goose chase) we fell for wholeheartedly, band of eighth graders
running circles in white sand, mucking through
cedar streams mined with snapper turtles
and broken bottles, our sneakers soaked, ankles stained
with tannins. It was easy to see how little we knew,
how the heart would fool us, the pine woods full
of itself, the buzzsaw of locusts
no locus amoenus hazing the migratory skyline,
each of us already a biography in tatters—
warbler, plover, storm-petrel, snipe.
Kevin Craft Discusses the Poem…
“Wilson’s Warbler (part 5)” is the closing section of a sequence I wrote about the life and legacy of Alexander Wilson, immigrant Scotsman who published American Ornithology—the first comprehensive field study of birds in North America. Forced to flee Scotland for composing pro-labor poetry at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, Wilson emigrated to Philadelphia in 1794. A self-professed bird lover (“biased almost from infancy by a fondness for birds” he wrote in one letter), he walked and traveled all over the nascent nation and its territories, making sketches, observing birds in their habitats, recording detailed descriptions of their appearance and behavior—a novelty at the time. The first volume of American Ornithology appeared in 1808, well before Audubon’s more famous work. (The two met in Louisville, Kentucky, a meeting which is said to have spurred Audubon to pursue eventual publication of his own.) In fact, according to his biographers, Edward H. Burtt and William E. Davis, American Ornithology is “the first major scientific work wholly produced and published in the United States.”
I grew up in South Jersey, not far from Philadelphia—birding territory first charted by Wilson. I was struck by the upstart progression of his career—a wanderer whose love of language and pursuit of poetry led him to explore the natural world in obsessive detail, to probe the seam, in words and pictures, between lyric evocation and scientific exactitude. In honor of his work, he has had five species named for him, more than any other ornithologist.
Kevin Craft lives in Seattle and directs the Written Arts Program at Everett Community College. He also teaches at the University of Washington’s Rome Center, and served as editor of Poetry Northwest from 2009 to 2016. His first book, Solar Prominence (2005), was selected by Vern Rutsala for the Gorsline Prize from Cloudbank Books. A new collection, Vagrants & Accidentals, which includes the entire “Wilson’s Warbler” sequence, has just been published by the University of Washington Press.