The Little Review (littlereview) wrote,
The Little Review

Poem for Saturday

The Hoopoe's Crown
By Jacqueline Osherow

I suppose it's something I should embrace:
how a one-time sighting of a feathered crown —
before it's even recorded — becomes a treatise

on suffering and human limitation.
I couldn't remember one particular
of the legend of the hoopoe and King Solomon

only (from the picture) the fiery color,
how the fanned-out feathers do contrive a crown.
It was always my weakness — the spectacular —

I'd never have made the same request as Solomon.
For one thing, his judgments leave me cold;
I don't believe the world contains a woman —

real mother or not — who would have settled
for half the body of a divided infant,
or fall for such a threat: a child killed?

If this is wisdom's highest achievement,
it has to be a fairly hollow thing.
And then, when you consider its denouement:

how the man we acknowledge as our wisest king
finished up his life worshipping idols.
But I'm ahead of myself; I was telling

or planning to tell some old Near Eastern riddles,
like how the hoopoe got his feathered crown.
Solomon is involved; it's he who straddles

an earlier riddle's eagle, on a mission
to explore the farthest reaches of his kingdom.
But he's failed to factor in the pounding sun

apparently, the refinements of his wisdom
don't extend themselves to head coverings).
The tale: a flock of hoopoes flies straight over him

and makes a canopy of outspread wings,
shading him for his entire expedition.
In my version, each pair of hoopoes sings

an ornate variation on a two-part canon
(from these, the Song of Songs will be compiled)
alternating wingbeats so no drop of sun

can penetrate the airy, makeshift shield.
A crown is the hoopoe's chosen reward,
and, against all warnings, he wants it gold.

Needless to say, he's mercilessly snared
for the easy, precious bounty on his head
until, his numbers dwindling, the humbled bird

accepts a crown of feathers in its stead,
which is where I begin to take an interest:
potential evidence, or, at least, a lead

in my increasingly maniacal quest
for even an inkling of divine collusion
in the bauble, the ornament, the beau geste —

something unaccounted for by evolution.
And don't try to tell me that the frivolous,
by definition, needs no justification.

I'm finding that you can't stave off unhappiness
by obsessive fussing over a hoopoe's crown;
probably, it's just too late for this.

I should have dashed it off that afternoon
still reeling from the heady dose of grace:
a garden overlooking the Mediterranean

my family pretending to be as rapturous
as I was when a pair of orange wings
landed right beside us on the grass.

Then, I might have done without the meanings,
but I thought I'd use that hoopoe as an overture:
I'd find the forgotten folktale, reread Kings —

crazy — when I'd just witnessed a creature
so much like a product of sheer artifice
I had to reconceive my notion of nature,

especially in that rumor-driven place
(this was the land of Israel, just north of Akko)
and, clearly, Whoever had made this bird for us

was a thorough devotee of pure rococo.
That should have been the revelation.
Why assume that something must have gone askew
if a bird wears an orange-feathered crown?
Imbibe some cockamamie explanation
about a king on an eagle in the baking sun?

Why not revel in ornamentation?
Clearly — look at the Temple — that's what Solomon did
for all his genius at deliberation,

and his was a wisdom straight from God,
who, with His typical lack of foresight,
threw in every other prize he had

until He'd made His own will obsolete:
immense riches, lands, power, women.
But if you ask me, Solomon was no more astute

than a bird tempting hunters with a crown.
Wasn't each gold cherub on the gold facade
of his over-the-top temple an invitation

to local thugs to plunder and maraud?
And isn't it, itself, a kind of idolatry —
all that gold, ivory, cedar, acacia wood —

or, at the very least, the height of folly?
The heaven's my throne, the earth's my footstool
(this is God talking) what house can you build Me?

I'm sorry. But Solomon's a fool.
Unless — he was wise, wasn't he? — he always knew
that all that admittedly absurd detail

was, frankly, the best that he could do.
Poor guy. It was faith he should have asked for;
think of the heartache of going through

that ridiculous charade, to manufacture
a vast and necessarily empty place.
Not that he thought extravagant expenditure

would replace faith — he wasn't fatuous —
but maybe he allowed himself the sneaking hope
that all that complicated enterprise

would, in its intensity, catch him up
and he'd find himself, in all its glare, believing.
Isn't that what I think . . . when I take up

some crazy subject . . . and try to make it sing?
I keep thinking, this time, I'll get it all:
not just the hoopoe's crown, the orange wing,

that headcase Solomon, the Hebrew Bible,
but my own lostness, without explaining
even a single miserable detail.

But I'll also forget some vital covering,
and what flock of birds would bail me out?
Believe me, I'll take sparrows, starlings, anything

or better still — but here I'm pushing it;
since it's not as if I have a crown to give —
I'd trade the whole flock for even brief delight

on my husband's face — I won't say love,
since his is so entwined with bitterness,
and, at best, completely uncommunicative,

except that day, with the hoopoe on the grass
when he seemed to take such pleasure in my pleasure
along with our three daughters — was it avarice

on my part? Should a wife and mother
let her family indulge her in that way?
He even managed to get a picture

of my hoopoe just before he flew away,
perhaps to make some king another canopy?
It's on a diskette somewhere, stashed away.

Who knows? Maybe, if I asked him for a copy,
he'd actually be glad to print one out.
He'd be happy for a minute. I'd be happy.

But I don't believe it; in fact, I doubt
he wants anything more than to be left alone.
So what choice do I have? I'm about

to do precisely that, for the duration,
when for years, I regretted that a mere lifetime
was all we'd have. I'm overthrown,

though I was full of love and faith; I still am
but it doesn't look like either one can save me.
Clearly, the thing I lack is wisdom,

not to mention a feathery canopy
to shield me from a brutal, brutal sun.
I suppose I, too, am just too greedy,

like that colossal fuck-up, Solomon
and his vainglorious bird. My loving family
has been — a bit too much — my golden crown

and it was spectacular, if only briefly.
No feathers to replace it, only pain,
which I, like an idiot, thought poetry

might be able to help me undermine.
No luck. But I have learned something;
it's a bankrupt business, ornamentation,

idolatrous, at worst; at best, an aching
absence of whatever it is that matters.
A little wisdom is a relentless thing;

everywhere I look, something shatters.
And as for that protective flock of stunning birds,
I don't envy Solomon when it scatters.


I had a day so uneventful that I pretty much have links and memes instead of a "What I Did Friday" entry. Here is my review of "A Private Little War", which was tough to review; I know everyone cites it as the Vietnam allegory episode and talks about it now like it's this courageous thing with Trek allegorizing the real world, but watching it, it seems reactionary, cynical and really not at all like the idealistic future for which I watch Star Trek. It's hard to root for Kirk at all, and although Nona is really quite an interesting character at first, she keeps getting reduced to her sex appeal and is ultimately made to pay dearly for wanting more than she has. Definitely not going on my Top 10 Original Series list.

The Washington Post's Robin Givhan, who writes about fashion (and who won a Pulitzer, which is kind of bizarre because some of her columns are agonizing, like she can't decide whether she wants to be a feminist or a fashion victim), wrote a really interesting piece, "In the Oval Office, Pumps and Circumstance", about Geena Davis' clothes and persona on Commander in Chief. I love Geena pretty unconditionally -- she's lobbied for stronger female characters in entertainment for children and for Title IX protection for girls in sports -- and I do think that, horrid as the scripts were, she inhabited the role of a female president wonderfully.

fridayfiver: ¡Viva Mexico!
1. Have you ever been to Mexico?
To the border, not across. We didn't have enough time on our last trip to California. I very much want to go to Chichen Itza.
2. Do you know anyone who is currently in the military? Several people. All currently home from Iraq, I am very happy to say.
3. What is the last party you attended? A birthday party to which my son was invited. He has another one Sunday.
4. What do you think about President Bush saying that the United States' National Anthem should only be sung in English? I think the National Anthem should be sung by people who believe in traditional American values like civil liberties and personal freedoms, which would preclude President Bush from singing it in any language. In fact I think President Bush should shut the hell up, period.
5. French fries or freedom fries? Chips and vinegar.

thefridayfive: Names
1. Do you like your birth-name? Why?
I don't love it but I don't dislike it. There is a well-known journalist with exactly the same first and last name, which is kind of a pain. I am the only generation with my last name, since my father's father shortened it when my father was a baby and my generation is entirely females whose kids have the fathers' last names. My first name is extremely common for girls born around when I was due to a certain song by Paul McCartney, so it's not all that enthralling.
2. If you could change your name to anything else, what would it be? If I was really going to change it, I'd have done it already. I have on occasion used a name based on my fannish handle on professional writing, which amuses me.
3. What names would you consider giving your children? If either of my sons had been a girl, she was going to be Kira. If my older one had been a girl and was already Kira Shoshana after my father's mother Sylvia, the younger one would almost certainly have been Kathryn Frances after my mother's mother Fan (Janeway aside, Kathryn is the name I wanted, and spelled that way, when I was in sixth grade).
4. If you had a band, what would you name it, and why? Justus Amusement Company, after the mob syndicate Lilly Dillon worked for in The Grifters.
5. Is there a name that you completely hate? Why? There is, because of a person I know who had the name and made my family miserable. It has little to do with the name itself.

Last week's fridayfiver: Is it me or you that I'm afraid of?
1. What's missing from your life?
I've never been to Tibet.
2. Do you like to get drunk? Not at all. Half a glass of wine is my limit. Or two sips of Bailey's Irish Creme like I am having now.
3. Have you ever kissed a stranger? Not with tongue involved. I have in celebratory enthusiasm pressed lips with someone whose name I did not know.
4. Do you smoke? I have never smoked a single puff of anything. It has never interested me enough to try.
5. What makes you happy? Great books, great conversation, people working for progress, when things are going great for my kids, the unbelievable beauty of this planet.

Last week's thefridayfive: Can’t Get Enough of Your Love Baby
1. Who was your first kiss (your mom does not count)?
The first one that meant anything was a 16 year old German boy named David at theater camp. I'd actually kissed another David but am not counting him.
2. What is your idea of the perfect date? A loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou. My date requirements are pretty simple. Otherwise, tickets to a Broadway musical never go amiss.
3. What music needs to be on when you are "getting your thang on"? No music -- by the time I'm taking my things off, I find it distracting.
4. What is the most amazing experience you've ever shared with a partner? It involved more than one partner and I'm not discussing it here. *g*
5. Sex is best saved for: love, marriage, alcohol, days that end in "y"? My experience of it has entirely been in love and I highly recommend that, as I have never had a bad experience. (Well, I have had "bad experiences" like a pregnancy scare, but I am really glad I had that with someone who was there to consider all the options rather than someone I didn't want to be with or who didn't want to be with me.) I have nothing against casual sex or sex just for fun, I just can't seem to do it and therefore it's hard for me to imagine what it's like for other people.

I have not posted photos of Rosie and Cinnamon in awhile and tonight they were demanding much attention, so here are some gratuitous cats. This, for instance, is the proper way to interfere with someone lying on the floor trying to take notes on a book.

If someone is reading the comics, however, you simply go over and sit on the newspaper and read along.

Just as Winnie the Pooh was a Wedged Bear in a Great Tightness, Rosie enjoys being a Wedged Cat in a Great Tightness whenever possible.

And Cinnamon demonstrates that while enjoying a patch of sunlight, one must be prepared to pounce in case someone walks by with a plastic trash bag tie.

Had dinner with my parents and uncle who was supposed to have back surgery yesterday but made a miracle recovery. So, Doctor Who? I really need to see the second part before blathering on, but OMG yes I see what everyone sees in Jack. Though Rose will always be my favorite, I suspect, even when they switch Doctors on me. She told Jack that the Doctor's name was Mister Spock! I am sure there's a symbolic reason Rose is wearing that Union Jack shirt but it's hilarious enough just to see her whipping past the zeppelins in the middle of the air raid (and the effects/cinematography are really good there...Big Ben has done well by this show). And so the Doctor can say "I want to find a blonde in a Union Jack. I mean a specific one," and give the speech to Nancy about how brave the British were while Hitler was sweeping across Europe...that is a lovely moment. The "Are you my mummy?" kid is incredibly creepy and that book about the little birdie looking for his mother has been ruined for me now! And it figures it's a cliffhanger. (Do NOT say anything like "It'll be fine" or "Ooh but the ending is so great" or "Just wait" to me, please, I know there are lots of people who have already seen these but it hits a point where I don't want to squee about it in public because someone is sure to point out that I could download it already and I know that, I have them, I just really don't want to watch them on a computer screen.)

Tomorrow after soccer I think we are going to go see the Hokusai and Sugimoto exhibits at the Sackler before they leave, and maybe the Legendary Coins & Currency exhibit at the Smithsonian Castle, and if we have time maybe stop off at the zoo to see the new sea lion pups!

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