My Ornithology (Orange-crowned Warbler)
In the middle of my life, I found myself in an edge habitat
staring into dense tangles of blackberry and watching
a baffling fall warbler feeding drowsily in the shrubs.
He was strikingly plain, olive-green with grayish head,
you might even say dull, dark, dingy, distinctly indistinct—
an orange-crowned of the eastern celata subspecies!
Remarkably and characteristically late, a recent arrival
from the boreal north of Alaska and Canada, drifting south-
easterly across the Great Plains and Mississippi Valley
to tarry at my local patch in Warren County, IL,
he takes his dear sweet time, for what’s the hurry.
Late this morning approaching the end of October,
among faded goldenrods, the black stars of spent flowers,
I had been walking along a familiar trail of dead leaves
still wet from the night’s gentle frost, a heatless sun
over my shoulder, counting the kinglets fluttering high
above my head in the quaking aspens, counting the maple
leaves slowly rocking down to earth, counting the years.
Lucky, I heard his sharp chip calling from pokeweed!
He sent me into a rapt confusion, looking and listening
intently as I worked on making an identification.
No help, he conceals his crown wherever he goes.
So I trust who his eyelash-fine faint eyeline says he is,
note the details as he goes about his flitting ways,
from perch to perch, flashes of pale yellow under
his flicking tail. While others gorge on autumn berries,
he forages deliberately for his favorite invertebrates,
his pencil sharp bill probing into dead leaf clusters.
The spider tastes good to him. He sips the morning dew
glazed on the bronze leaf. He considers the cataract
of leaf light and vine light. Somewhat of a loner, it’s true,
you won’t catch him in a mob action, though he has
a travel companion and may fall into mixed flocks,
as the days on the wing can be tedious and dangerous.
He would stay here, but it is in his nature to go. Yet there
is still green to glean before moving on, and time.
Chances are I will be here tomorrow and the next day,
chances are I will look for him in the misty entanglements
as if pursuing the central mystery of his life, and mine.
Chicory—June leaning out the car window,
which way, at the intersection of meadowlark
and sparrow, when morning gathers midnight
into bluish purple flowers shooting the breeze;
chicory—from whose weedy radial view
the ditch is just lovely, perfect disturbances
for roadside cloudbanks of storm blue anthers,
all July rarely lonely amid such abundance;
chicory—still plenty this listless August,
sweltering days mowed under the blade,
new waves rise beside another blue highway
now there’s a faster route for the strayed.
These poems are part of Poetry Northwest’s “Life List” feature.
Hai-Dang Phan is the author of the poetry collection Reenactments (Sarabande, 2019) and the translator of Phan Nhiên Hạo’s volume of poems Paper Bells (The Song Cave, 2020). He teaches at Grinnell College and lives in Iowa City.