Saturday, September 18, 2010

Meriwether Lewis's woodpecker pecks again

I'll admit I'm not a hashtagger, and I'm old enough to remember vividly a social life before the internet, which leaves me a little cranky about meme-chasing as a means of communicating.

Come to think of it, I remember the meme-chasing equivalent before there was social media meme-chasing. It was the thing where people spoke solely in quotes from movie dialogue. That really sucked.

But interconnections can be fun when they are genuine. They can lead to fresh discoveries and new, instant intimacies.

So I followed a Twitter link from a guy I don't otherwise know named Scott Edward Anderson. Scott was riffing on a post by another guy I don't know named Jim Behrle, having sardonic fun with the genre of The Dead Bird Poem. Jim's post takes this trail back to a Facebook message sent to him, turning this dead bird poem thing into a bona fide, multi-platform meme without the breathy artifical perspiration of a #hashtag.

The post by Jim Behrle, which references one of his own dead poems about a dead bird, elicited from Scott Edward Anderson a dead poem of his own about a Dead Red Wing.

I dig talking to people through Twitter, so I told Scott his post and poem reminded me that I had written a poem about a dead bird brought back from the West by Meriwether Lewis, that subsequently was named for the captain explorer, Lewis's Woodpecker.

Scott said he hoped I'd share the poem. That was encouragement enough for me. Some document searching on the trusty old laptop, and this here dead poem has new wings:


By Chris King

I was happy to see you
dapper man in sooty black
jacket, reddish vest, with toe
nail issues, though, and a bit
grizzled, muzzy, matted about
the neck, tail feathers scruffy.
Woodpecker with a necklace, a Kamiah,
Idaho, exile, a holotype, neighbor
of the innards of asteroids, giraffe
scapula mixer of poisons.
Property of Harvard, now, from Charles
Wilson Peale and your namesake captain,
Meriwether, with Golden Pheasants Peale
asked of President Washington, tactless,
while they yet flapped. “I cannot say
that I shall be happy to have it in
my power to comply with your request,”
General George wrote Peale, “but expect it
will not be long before they will compose
a part of your museum, as they appear
to be drooping.” Meriwether Lewis
chased you like a northern flicker
through the Rocky Mountains, caught you
in the Bitterroots, spotted the glossy
tint of green in you in certain light,
thumbed the barb of your pink tongue,
author of song on the Upper Missouri,
marveled at how oddly artificially
painted in blood red and white your
breast and belly seem and the yellowed
browns of muscly iris in your purple eyes
only when you were in his canoe, composed.


As I recall, this was written in the presence of the actual specimen that had been brought back personally by Meriwether Lewis. I was a magazine travel editor for years and went to museums everywhere, so I can't remember where I saw it.

Oh yeah, I forgot. The internet knows everything. I asked Google and it sent me to the Library of Congress, which told me the specimen is birdhoused at the Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology, which checks out; I must have done a dozen Boston stories.

That is the picture of the bird, above, from the LoC.