Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Sand grouse

He walked in front along the narrow trail between the stones. Ali behind, leading the camels. They startled a brace of sand grouse from under a deka bush beside the trail. He heard the sudden whir of rushing wings. He did not see the birds at first but streaks of light and shadow passing before them. Only when the birds rose above the horizon and got far enough away to be seen from behind did they become distinguishable as two birds. They darted from the stones like fighter jets from an aircraft carrier, climbed into a robin-shell sky, banked in separate directions, then gathered together again, one a little ahead of the other.

He scanned the ground for the nest, but they’d left so fast it was impossible to see where they’d been amid the rubble.

He liked sand grouse. They looked like athletic doves: pretty, dun-colored, except in the sun when their feathers were iridescent amber, like wax-wings back home. Fast and angular. Even hawkish. Wings bent like swifts’ wings.

They were big breasted.

In fact, they nursed their young as mammals do.

Sand grouse nested on the desert, far from water, and flew miles to springs and wells, over and over throughout the day. He’d spent hours watching them do this. They landed beside the water, at the spring’s muddy banks. There were dozens, sometimes hundreds, of them, depending on season and time of day and size of spring. They’d waddle to the water line, like cows to trough, newcomers waiting in formation behind. As they got to the edge each lifted her breast feathers, like a woman lifting the front of her dress to sit down, and pressed them into the shallow water. Water runs from a duck but it collects in a grouse’s down, beading up in the soft, spongy fibers. Then with a boom of collective wings the front row lifted off and dashed back to suckle their young with water from their bosoms.

He liked sand grouse not because they looked a certain way or because they flew a certain way but because he knew certain things about them, he understood aspects of their behavior and that made them nearer to him, part of his world.

He thought of the word relation, from Latin re-latus, to carry back.

Ali noticed the grouse but said nothing.

His companion turned and with his face gestured in their direction.

Ali nodded without interest.

They’re like camels, he said, in Ali’s language, literally that the grouse looked like camels.

It was not exactly what he wanted to say.

The comment amused the boy. He smiled, cocked his head.

Eh, he said doubtfully. The color?

He was reaching for what he meant.

They nurse their young with breasts.

Wa! Is it? They have milk?

Water, water from the spring. In their feathers. They give their young water.

Then they’re not camels, Ali said.

He paused a beat.

They’re women, fetching water for children. Camels give milk. Women give water.

Women give milk too.

Yes, but then they are camels.

Ali did not say they looked like camels.

He said they were camels.

That was the turn of so many of his conversations.

They meandered along but eventually stepped over the edge of his competence. His language was not strong enough to talk metaphysics, to play consciously along the divide of literal and metaphoric speech. He could not without help explore the implications of Ali’s classifications. Were camels the prototype of milk-givers? Or was Ali playing poetically with analogies, disagreeing with the one he made, making another? How could he ask the question? To do that, one had to step outside the language and look in, and he could barely do that in his own language, let alone one he stumbled in like new shoes. He didn’t know how to ask Ali about the range of ways to say something: his question was always, how do you say this or that?, or what does this or that mean?, and that is how Ali and others took his questions. They repeated their initial words. Or they said it another way. He wanted to ask, are women really camels?, but of course they weren’t, and they both knew it. He could not ask that. He suspected Ali meant more than that they were simply like camels because they fed their young milk.

Was it poetry if it wasn’t meant to be poetry?

Was it poetry if the meaning depended on misunderstanding?

- from The Names of Things.

1 comment:

Timothy said...

To answer your last question about poetry and misunderstanding: Yes.