Raven Mandala II by Nathalie Parenteau

I lived in Alaska sixteen years ago, when my oldest son Jasper was born.

During his first month he had trouble sleeping, as babies often do, and most nights found me walking with him in my arms trying to get him back to sleep.

While walking I would softly sing to him and recite poems and, occasionally, I would whisper a poem I was working on at the time.

One of these poems was “An ‘Unkindness’ of Ravens,” which was filled with direct observations of ravens — an almost constant presence in town and, along with polar bears, a kind of totem in my life since I first saw them as a boy in Maine.

The poem started forming one night when, after putting my son back in his crib, I couldn’t get back to sleep.

Looking out the window, I noticed ravens gathering in the tall trees behind the house. I was intrigued as their numbers grew and the poem began to unfold in my mind.

Many of the images in the poem came from ravens I observed out my office window in the old Alaska Railroad Depot building by Ship Creek below downtown Anchorage.

I always liked this poem, perhaps because of its association with the birth of my first child and what it said about the strangeness and newness of my life at the time: a new father and new to Alaska; both uncharted territories.

As with many things, my perseverance paid off and, fourteen years after it was written, the poem found a home in a journal called Abyss & Apex.

Here is my poem, “An ‘Unkindness’ of Ravens”:

 

To fall asleep at night, I count ravens

from my bedroom window.

They gather in the spruce trees

at the edge of the woods,

as snow gathers dusk on its surface.

By midnight, thirty or forty

have gathered there in the oily dark.

 

As a group, they are called “an unkindness,”

but they are polite

and helpful to each other,

share their successes and failures

pursue joy and embrace their strength

in numbers, which is more than we can say.

 

Plummeting downhill, they launch into air,

as if snowboarding; flipping and spinning

— hell-bent teenagers on a half-pipe.

In more sober moments, they tell each other

where to look for food, when danger is near,

and where the good garbage is.  They discuss

variable wind speeds or compare moose meat

found in the woods with that of roadside kills.

 

They can be graceful on the wing — Naiads

of the air — or clumsy and indelicate,

half-eaten bagels dangling from black beaks.

Dusk comes later and later these evenings,

and morning arrives sooner, winter almost over.

Come Easter, the ravens will be gone.

Ravens prefer dead things remain dead.

 

–Scott Edward Anderson

 

Magpie by Diane Stiglich (collection of the author).

Magpie by Diane Stiglich (collection of the author).

Almost a decade ago, the Alaska Quarterly Review published a poem of mine called “Naming.” I thought of it today because a good friend mentioned it in a message to me on Twitter. (She had overheard a conversation about magpies I was having with another friend.)

I’m not around magpies much these days, living on the East Coast. I miss them. Magpies, all corvids, really, are a totem for me (bears, especially polar bears are my other totem). Highly intelligent birds with bad reputations, they are a lot of fun.

Gary Snyder once told me and a group of other students that we should find totems for our poetry, “this is the world of nature, myth, archetype, and ecosystem that we must all investigate.” He also told us to “fear not science,” to know what’s what in the ecosystem, to study mind and language, and that our work should be grounded in place. Most of all, he instructed, “be crafty and get the work done.”

Advice that also, curiously enough, reminds me of magpies.

Here is my poem “Naming”:

The way a name lingers in the snow
when traced by hand.
The way angels are made in snow,
all body down,
arms moving from side to ear to side to ear—
a whisper, a pause;
the slight, melting hesitation–

The pause in the hand as it moves
over a name carved in black granite.
The “Chuck, Chuck, Chuck,”
of great-tailed grackles
at southern coastal marshes,
or the way magpies repeat,
“Meg, Meg, Meg”–

The way the rib cage of a whale
resembles the architecture of I. M. Pei.
The way two names on a page
separated by thousands of lines,
pages, bookshelves, miles, can be connected.
The way wind hums through cord grass;
rain on bluestem, on mesquite–

The tremble in the sandpiper
as it skitters over tidal mudflats,
tracking names in the wet silt,
silt that has been building
since Foreman lost to Ali,
since Troy fell — building until
we forget names altogether–

The way children, who know only
syllables endlessly repeated,
connect one moment to the next by
humming, humming, humming–
The way magpies connect branches
into thickets for their nesting–

The curve of thumb as it caresses
the letters in the name of a loved one
on the printed page, connecting
each letter with a trace of oil
from fingerprint to fingerprint,
again and again and again—

Scott Edward Anderson
Alaska Quarterly Review, Summer 2001

Here is an Mp3 recording of me reading “Naming” Live at the Writers House, University of Pennsylvania, on September 22, 2008: Scott Edward Anderson’s “Naming” (Note: there is a 10-second delay at the beginning of the file.)

Postscript: And here is a filmpoem of “Naming” made by Alastair Cook in 2011: Naming