July 15, 2008 3:07 PM   Subscribe

The Great Scarf of Birds -- John Updike

Playing golf on Cape Ann in October,
I saw something to remember.

Ripe apples were caught like red fish in the nets
of their branches. The maples
were colored like apples,
part orange and red, part green.
The elms, already transparent trees,
seemed swaying vases full of sky. The sky
was dramatic with great straggling V’s
of geese streaming south, mare’s-tails above them.
Their trumpeting made us look up and around.
The course sloped into salt marshes,
and this seemed to cause the abundance of birds.

As if out of the Bible
or science fiction,
a cloud appeared, a cloud of dots
like iron fillings which a magnet
underneath the paper undulates.
It dartingly darkened in spots,
paled, pulsed, compressed, distended, yet
held an identity firm: a flock
of starlings, as much one thing as a rock.
One will moved above the tress
the liquid and hesitant drift.

Come nearer, it became less marvelous,
more legible, and merely huge.
“I never saw so many birds!” my friend exclaimed.
We returned our eyes to the game.
Later, as Lot’s wife must have done,
in a pause of walking, not thinking
of calling down a consequence,
I lazily looked around.

The rise of the fairway above was tinted,
so evenly tinted I might not have noticed
but that at the rim of the delicate shadow
the starlings were thicker and outlined the flock
as an inkstain in drying pronounces its edges.
The gradual rise of green was vastly covered;
I had thought nothing in nature could be so broad
but grass.

And as
I watched, one bird,
prompted by accident or will to lead,
ceased resting; and, lifting in a casual billow,
the flock ascended as a lady’s scarf,
transparent, of gray, might be twitched
by one corner, drawn upward and then,
decided against, negligently tossed toward a chair:
the southward cloud withdrew into the air.

Long had it been since my heart
Had been lifted as it was by the lifting of that great
posted by vronsky (22 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
A lot of words for so little video.
posted by TwelveTwo at 3:14 PM on July 15, 2008

do i need click the link or is it all up there...
posted by clavdivs at 3:18 PM on July 15, 2008

to be hip?
posted by porn in the woods at 3:19 PM on July 15, 2008

Yeah, my first thought was that this is a lot of front page real estate for a 1.35m video. I've seen the same thing in HD on the Planet Earth disks. Not saying don't link the video or anything, but [more inside] is your friend.
posted by Effigy2000 at 3:20 PM on July 15, 2008

Vronsky, meet Shepherd.
posted by CunningLinguist at 3:21 PM on July 15, 2008

She'll do anything for a Klondike,
But I'll do anything for John Updike
And we'll put it on Metafilter when the time's right
posted by porn in the woods at 3:23 PM on July 15, 2008

I unicode
posted by dersins at 3:26 PM on July 15, 2008

thanks, a bit of poetic imagery is good for the soul.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:27 PM on July 15, 2008

small squares appearing in Firefox 2/Mac but not in Safari, odd.
posted by porn in the woods at 3:32 PM on July 15, 2008

Great video and Updike quotage, thanks. I see these same eerie insane swooping bird squadrons every autumn where I live, and I've often wondered whether those birds were starlings. I guess my question's been answered.
posted by blucevalo at 3:40 PM on July 15, 2008

Lucien Bull (stenographics 2)
posted by vronsky at 3:41 PM on July 15, 2008

Where's the Updike from?
posted by oldleada at 3:43 PM on July 15, 2008

This is cool. I wish the video were finer resolution -- I'd love to get a better view.

This is one poem that's always been interesting to me because it managed to move me with the concept of an experience long before I had it -- others I sometimes like because they capture an experience I've had, but I'd never seen anything like it until one fall about 8 years ago when I was out by Utah lake, and suddenly it just happened, just like he said "one bird, prompted by accident or will to lead, ceased resting; and, lifting in a casual billow, the flock ascended as a lady’s scarf, transparent, of gray, might be twitched by one corner, drawn upward an then, decided against, negligently tossed toward a chair: the southward cloud withdrew into the air." And it was awe-inducing, just a bit breathtaking.
posted by weston at 3:46 PM on July 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

ah, to take the auspices in the middle of a game of golf: this is so Updike -- as the Augur In Chief of literary provincialism no irrelevant, boring-as-fuck minutia is too small in his Kingdom of the Middlebrow. if anything, harmless bird-watching seems to be a welcome pastime for The New Yorker's haruspex, given the relentless navel-gazing of his books and the blinkered cowardliness of his politics, merrily unchanged from Vietnam on to now.
posted by matteo at 4:00 PM on July 15, 2008

Those birds totally ripped that off from that "Mummy" movie.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 4:06 PM on July 15, 2008

Thanks vronsky, that's beautiful.
posted by Huplescat at 4:33 PM on July 15, 2008

I think I might've said this in another comment somewhere, but I used to see these amazing flocks doing their amazing swirly thing, from train windows, rolling through Europe. On those occasions when I was so lucky to see such a miracle, I always felt like it was some kind of blessing. Magic, right before your eyes.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:36 PM on July 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

"... and you cut down two, then two again, and then a high one straight overhead, then miss a fast one straight and low to the right, then they come whistling back, passing faster than you can load and shoot, you brown a bunch to get cripples for decoys and then take only fancy shots because you know now you can get all that we can use or carry. You try the high one, straight overhead and almost leaning backward, the coup de roi, and splash a big black duck down beside M'Cola, him laughing, then, the four cripples swimming away, you decide you better kill them and pick up. You have to run in water to your knees to get in range of that last cripple and you slip and go face down and are sitting, enjoying being completely wet finally, water cool on your behind, soaked with muddy water, wiping off glasses and then getting the water out of the gun, wondering if you can shoot up the shells before they will swell, M'Cola delighted with the spill. He, with shooting coat now full of ducks, crouches and a flock of geese pass over in easy range while you try to pump a wet shell in. You get a shell in, shoot, but it is too far, or you were behind, and at the shot you see the cloud of flamingoes rise in the sun, making the whole horizon of the lake pink. Then they settle. But after that each time after you shoot you turn and look out into the sun on the water and see that quick rise of the unbelievable cloud and then the slow settling."
posted by notyou at 5:05 PM on July 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

That was actually a giant sky cuttlefish--they do look a bit like a flock of birds, though.
posted by Citizen Premier at 5:39 PM on July 15, 2008

Y'know, since this post is about poetry and these crazy bird clouds, I'll print here a verse from a song I wrote a couple years ago, called "Back Around". The last line in the verse was directly inspired by memories of these birds:

i wrote you a letter on a leaf blowing in the wind
you took your hammer and chisel
and carved a reply in stone
you took a bass drum mallet to a pile of violins
while i played pizzicato on the slide trombone
you put the script in the shredder
and the poet in his grave
even the silver tongued devil's at a loss for words
i'm trying to keep my eye on a single pair of wings
in the swirling center of a flock of birds
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:04 PM on July 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Dear matteo, this is what I hear in my head, when I read one of your comments.
posted by vronsky at 6:30 PM on July 15, 2008

vronsky, I will not have this thread turned into a circus! Anyway, Matteo has many perfectly respectable and well thought out opinions. This isn't one of them, of course. And we also have to take into account that greatness on the scale of Updike's often inspires as much spite as reverence in an author's own time. I suspect that future generations will think of us all in the late 20th century as having lived in the "age of Updike," and pay little or no attention to what most of us think are the main attractions under our cultural big top.
posted by Faze at 7:05 PM on July 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

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