The owl’s insomnia

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Standing in the shower on the morning after we went to see the snowy owl, I found the words to one of Rafael Alberti’s many poems called “Canción” running through my head:

Si my voz muriera en tierra,
llevadla al nivel del mar
y dejadla en la ribera.

Llevadla al nivel del mar
y nombradla capitana
de un blanco bajel de guerra.

Oh mi voz condecorada
con la insignia marinera…

I couldn’t quite remember the last few lines, so after my shower, on my way out to the porch, I grabbed my bilingual edition of Alberti’s poems, selected and translated by Mark Strand: The Owl’s Insomnia (Atheneum, 1982).

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Insomnia? Well, perhaps so. What else might explain the amazing persistence of this Arctic vagrant, a veritable capitana de un blanco bajel de guerra shipwrecked in Central Pennsylvania on one of the mildest winters on record? For a month and a half he has sat implacably at one of several locations along a stretch of interstate highway near Rockview state prison, with meal breaks presumably consisting of meadow voles and other rodents. With all the traffic roaring past, not to mention the steady stream of admirers like us, one can well imagine he might be suffering from some form of insomnia – whatever that would mean for an owl. For most of this time here there’s been no snow cover to speak of, though the ground inside cloverleaf interchanges might be nearly as barren as the frozen tundra.

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This past Saturday, the temperature was in the low sixties, and the owl huddled in the meager shade afforded by the concrete entrance to a culvert, described as his favorite spot in the birders’ listserve. I felt as if we had come to pay our respects to some avian anchorite of great holiness. My brother pointed out the heavy bars on the culvert, no doubt intended to seal off a potential hiding place for escaped convicts. The owl’s eyes were never completely open, nor did they ever appear to shut all the way. He slowly pivoted his head as other cars parked on the shoulder of the exit ramp and more visitors emerged. We were at first surprised by the demographics, which included two different sets of mother-with-daughter-aged 10-12. “Hedwig!” Steve exclaimed, ever the authority on popular culture. “They’re here to see Hedwig!” Apparently a snowy owl by that name is featured in the Harry Potter books and movies.

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A raven suddenly flew in low over our heads, and we noticed a pair of horned larks fluttering around on the cloverleaf tundra within fifty feet of the owl. Less than a mile away, the state’s official execution chamber awaited its next victim and hundreds of modern-day slaves toiled indoors and out, under the assumption that Arbeit macht frei. It was eerie. During the whole twenty minutes we kept up our vigil, the owl never stopped looking like an apparition:

sobre el corazón un ancla
y sobre el ancla una estrella
y sobre la estrella el viento
y sobre el viento la vela!

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*Here’s my translation of the poem by Rafael Alberti.


If my voice should die on land,
carry it down to the sea
and leave it on the shore.

Carry it down to the sea
and make it captain of a white
ship of war.

Oh my voice, decorated
with the emblem of a sailor:
over the heart an anchor,
and over the anchor a star,
and over the star the wind,
and over the wind the sail!

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