The sandhill crane today. He no longer welcomes you to the exhibit, but he's still dancing. Photograph taken by me.
I love poetry. There's no art form that's better at conveying what it felt like to be in a certain place at a certain time.
With that in mind, here is "The Sparrow Drawer" by Canadian poet Diana Brebner, from her posthumous poetry collection The Ishtar Gate. The poem takes place in the old bird exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Most of the displays she describes no longer exist.
The Sparrow Drawer
I. The Sandhill Crane
The sandhill crane, in his glass case, performs
his nuptial dance. Jumping, bowing, and wildly
flapping, reads the museum description. Well,
aren't we all the same in love? This dead
male is frozen in the pose, on a bed of
stone. Thus, the museum welcomes us to its
permanent exhibit: Birds in Canada. When I
bring my daughters to the museum, because
it is cleaner and easier than a day in the
bush, they always ask to see the birds, or the
big animals. And I tell myself: this will
do them good. They know enough about mud,
rain, being hungry, no toilets, and wanting
to go home. In the real world, a bird is
always gone before my two-year-old can look.
Or, alternately, I can never find the great
blue herons they insist are really there.
II. Birds by Number
In the Eastern Hardwood Forest thirty-three birds
are mounted on log pedestals, each in a pose
that is meant to be life-like. I remind myself
these are dead bodies. I have no memory for
useful things, but I can remember my first
sighting of migrating snowbirds (Junco hyemalis)
in Algonquin Park, the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks
at the feeders near the cabin, the enormous
black and white Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus
pileatus) with its blood-red crest, up near the
cliffs at Luskville. I can tell you where, and
who was with me, down a great-list of the birds
I believed forgotten. My daughters learn birds
by numbers, matching a numbered body with a
name on a list, given in three languages, as if
that will make them real. The fact is, my girls
enjoy this. They call them doll-birds. And the
bird names are repeated solemnly, as if each
name were part of a spell. And I do it too.
For who can say this is not reverence, a litany,
a prayer, a wish for something promised. The
name of one woman who died finds its way to
the list, and I remember my first sighting of a
rare old man I loved.
III. The Sparrow Drawer
It is time for us to be leaving; somehow we find
ourselves before one final display. It is the same
forest, rearranged by seasons, and including
the ducks, herons, owls, and hawks, that are
familiar to The Forest, as they call the example of
hardwood forest that is local, and ours. And then,
beneath the glass cases, my eldest daughter finds
two drawers. Above them a simple label reads:
Would you like to know more about birds? How
many times did I bring that other child to this
place? We never found these boxes. And they
are not hidden, merely unexpected. The first
lights up as we pull it out. Eggs. Large and
small. Blue, green, mottled beige, brown. Great
white goose eggs, the hummingbird's egg glowing,
a white pearl, all in rows, labeled, an old child's collection.
And the second drawer opens quietly, and as easily
as the first, lights up, displays its contents.
This is the sparrow drawer. No-one has gone to any
trouble to make this look pretty. Dead sparrows
lie in an uneven row, their bodies in disarray,
frozen on snow, which is also synthetic batting,
with black plastic arrowheads stuck in strategic
areas to accentuate their differences. The caption
tells us: all sparrows look alike to the untrained
eye. They are difficult to tell apart in the field.
Chipping Sparrow. Savannah Sparrow. Lincoln's Sparrow.
Song Sparrow. Swamp Sparrow. And alone, beneath
the line of identical bodies, a Pine Siskin, just
to show us how even one species can be mistaken for
another. And what have I seen hovering in a field?
I could swear it was the child I have lost. Love
I have learned the hard way; how many hovering boys
in schoolyards look just like him. Of course, I don't
want to see this, or the dead birds, and I close
the drawer. But my girls will not leave it alone.
They open it. I close it. They cry. So, we open it
again. We say the names of the different sparrows.
I tell them that any creature, once named, cannot
be forgotten. This, I believe. You see, there are
no numbers there, only names. The Pine Siskin trembles
at the bottom of the drawer, as we roll it shut.
Brebner, D. 2005. The Ishtar Gate: Last and Selected Poems, ed. Stephanie Bolster. McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal. 192 pp.
These Canada geese were mounted on the ceiling of the old bird exhibit, and surrounded by mirrors that made it look like there were a lot more than there really were. Prints of this picture are for sale on eBay.