April Diary 9: sapsuckers, beginner’s mind, and Phoebe Giannisi

river in November light between bare woods and mountain
This entry is part 8 of 31 in the series April Diary


a day of bright sun and sudden showers

a day for Louisiana waterthrushes and yellow-bellied sapsuckers

I wrote a haiku about the former, posting it from the trail, and texted my birder brother about the latter

i’m picturing one of those 16th-century fonts where lower-case S’s look like F’s

I had one rule for this diary: to compose and post it entirely on the phone and I broke that rule on April 1, more fool me

what is it about poets and the need to set arbitrary rules which we honor mainly in the breach

the point of the rule was to enforce brevity (I type very slowly and poorly on it) but perhaps my laziness will serve the same function

is it a diary or zuihitsu though really

as British poet Cheryl Moskovitz put it

Zuihitsu is neither prose poem nor essay although it can sometimes resemble both. To ‘follow the brush’ suggests a certain not-knowing of what will happen, that whatever might result from the process will be down to discovery rather than plan. There is a strong sense in zuihitsu writing that the creation of order depends on disorder. Zuihitsu demands as its starting point, juxtapositions, fragments, contradictions, random materials and pieces of varying lengths.

so should I take Sei Shonagon for my guardian spirit, or the monk Kenkō, author of Essays in Idleness?

What a strange, demented feeling it gives me when I realise I have spent whole days before this inkstone, with nothing better to do, jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts that have entered my head.

Donald Keene, Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō

that’s how the grumpy old priest begins

the equally curmudgeonly Shonagon began her Pillow Book like this (in Ivan Morris’ classic translation):

In spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful. As the light creeps over the hills, their outlines are dyed a faint red and wisps of purplish clouds trail over them.

she goes on to say that in summer is it the nights, in autumn the evenings and in winter the early mornings that are most beautiful

and i’m thinking that might be true in central Pennsylvania too

back at the end of March I attended a reading at Penn State Altoona by a couple of friends who teach there, both of whom had new books to launch: Todd Davis (Coffin Honey) and Erin Murphy (Taxonomies)

they both read very well and each is at the top of their game – so far so good. but should i stay for the rest of the reading, an open mike that i knew would be dominated by students with little more than one or two poetry classes under their belts? yikes i thought but i did stick around anyway

and actually it was kind of awesome. for one thing nobody hogged the mike. the audience was large but respectful and the work they shared had plenty of surprise

it occurred to me that listening to beginner poets is an exercise in recognition: recognizing what is salvageable, what is already brilliant, how true poetry and the received wisdom of the tribe are sometimes interchangeable. recognizing true insights no matter how encumbered by cliche

recognizing one’s own best moments with Beginner’s Mind

it’s also always valuable for those of us who have been immersed in poetry for most of our lives to get these periodic reminders of how newcomers to the craft might perceive it

most male birds aside from ducks lack penises, so copulation consists of what ornithologists refer to as a cloacal kiss

without the distraction of any kind of penetration one can see clearly that sex is at base a form of communication and perhaps its quintessence: a making in the sense of the Greek poeisis. DNA not unlike computer code to which it is often compared has the power to bring things about, like a sorcerer’s spell

the sapsuckers were certainly noisy about it too with that weird vuvuzela-like sound they make

here’s how the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website describes yellow-bellied sapsucker sounds:

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker’s signature call is a scratchy, nasal mewing that is often repeated. They also have a squealing call, a repeated quee-ah, quee-ah, that’s territorial and often heard in breeding season. And they make a waa call when disturbed or to alert others to danger.

Other Sounds

Like other sapsuckers, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker’s drumming is slower and more irregular than other woodpeckers. Its stuttering cadence can sound like somebody tapping out morse code. In addition to trees with good resonance, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers also drum on metal surfaces—like street signs or chimney flashing—to amplify their territorial messages. Most drumming is done by males during breeding season.

a stuttering cadence suggests code or language because I suppose our ears are trained to recognize speech-like patterns, even in inanimate things like thunder or or the wind

i imagine birds hear a lot of sounds as potential birdsong, including human voices

i’m working my way through Greek poet Phoebe Giannisi’s book Cicada as translated by Brian Sneeden. the three epigraphs at the very front of the book are by J. Henri Fabre, Plato, and Basho so i figured the book would kick ass and it mostly does

like much of the poetry i read (and nearly everything i write) these are minimalist poems without a fixed narrator. according to the publisher’s description

Giannisi is a poet internationally known for her idiosyncratic ecopoetics, her poetic multimedia works and performances, and most of all, her brilliant vision glowing at the borders of language, voice, place, and memory.

i particularly like how she envisions ecdysis as an act of giving birth to oneself (not sure that image would’ve occurred to a male poet) but let me share instead the opening poem both because it is short and because it sort of fits with what i’ve been talking about:


Inside these articulations
the beginnings of language
outside of yes and no
inside only the I want
the soul with the body meeting
in all the openly
meteoric leaves
and now, see:
one of them falls slowly
to the earth

Phoebe Giannisi

more davebonta.com tagline possibilities

  • mouth-breather, poet
  • son of Bruce
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  • young codger