Wompoo Fruit Dove
We’ve all heard that thud–
stunned on the grass,
breathing hard, drawn close
to the hollow flight-feather,
beak cranking, the claw
scratching at air
til the neck warps, under
the sun-struck wall–
the other side of love.
First published in The New Criterion (April 2012), “Wompoo Fruit Dove” announces in its title that it is not an American poem. Conan-Davies is an Australian poet living in America, and among the things she misses about her homeland are the rich inter-layerings of birdlife. In particular, the Wompoo Fruit Dove is notable for its size and rainbow beauty. The bird’s body can grow to be 18 inches in length, with a wingspan of several feet. If one of these birds hit your window and died, you would notice.
The poem is only nine lines long, seven of them comprising the description of a dying bird set between dashes, so there are two grammatical turns—one at each dash. It’s the second turn, however, that deepens the poetry by opening up an unexpected imaginal space as it completes the sentence. The best poems, it would seem, all have at least one such moment, a crack in our expectations that offers us a way into experience beyond the paraphrasable.
So as Americans, if indeed we are Americans, we begin with the estrangement of the title, naming a creature with which we are unfamiliar, and the bluntness of that first line. We think we are reading a poem about a bird hitting a window and dying, which of course means the bird has been fooled by reflections, by images, and has rushed headlong to its death.
Conan-Davies always lets sound lead the eye and ear from line to line, the assonance of “thud” and “stunned”; the off-rhyme of “grass” and “close”; “feather,” “air” and “under”; of “claw” and “wall.” Her visual precision, really a lifetime of close observation of the natural world, is brought to bear on the bird: “beak cranking, the claw / scratching the air / till the neck warps. . . ” Now it’s sharp alliteration we hear, a painful exertion of dying. That word “cranking” was the first big surprise for me—a very particular way of turning, or straining to turn, as the move from life to death is a strain to turn into something else. Then that warping neck—the word “warp” is a bent sound to my ear.
When a poet so fully embodies experience in words, we are left to talk about that embodiment in ways that leave merely cerebral intelligence in the dust. This embodiedness is an essentially poetic experience.
And then comes the final cranking or shocking turn to “the other side of love.” Suddenly the poem has sent us flying into our own mirrored windows. Now we know what the thud meant. It meant love—everything that had lifted our hearts and made us hope for the future, everything that made us want to dance in ecstacy—has come crashing down in ruins. Or perhaps it means that love is necessarily imaginative, even delusional, a force of both life and death. The poem reveals us to ourselves, refusing to flatter us. We are no better than the deluded bird, chasing images, perhaps images of ourselves, our kind, into oblivion.
The poem’s brevity and refusal of sentiment are part of its power. It has the power to stun. The spaces it has opened up reveal life and death, love (which of course rhymes with dove) and the end of love, in a conversation we will never finish.
David Mason’s next books are Sea Salt: Poems of a Decade (Red Hen) and Davey McGravy (Paul Dry Books), a verse novella for readers aged 8 to 80, both due out in 2014. He is married to Cally Conan-Davies.
“Wompoo Fruit Dove” first appeared in The New Criterion 30 (April, 2012). Reprinted with permission of the author