A number of years ago, poet Donika Kelly was trying to figure out how to date, when she saw a nature documentary about a bowerbird. Male Satin Bowerbirds will gather all the blue items they can find, build a beautiful structure called a bower, and do a dance to try to woo the females. Donika found herself wishing that human courtship had such a clear structure, and wrote a series of poems inspired by the bowerbird.
Donika Kelly and the Bowerbird
Written by Mark Bramhill
Mark Bramhill: This is BirdNote.
A number of years ago, poet Donika Kelly was trying to figure out how to date, when she saw a nature documentary about a bowerbird.
[Clip of David Attenborough from BBC documentary]: “When it comes to jewels, blue is undoubtedly his favorite…”
Mark Bramhill: Male Satin Bowerbirds will gather all the blue items they can find, build a beautiful structure called a bower, and do a dance to try to woo the females. And this caught her attention.
Donika Kelly: And so I turned to the birds cause they're much smarter than I am about these things. They have, they have systems in place. Uh, and I thought there might be some comfort, uh, in having, having a system of my own. I just wish that there was like a dance I could do. And then like a woman can just be like, yes, no. And I'm be like, “okay, great!” Let's just be clear. Um, but that was, uh, that's, that's not really how that works.
Mark Bramhill: And this inspired a series of poems reflecting on the bowerbird, and this idea of courtship:
Consider the bowerbird and his obsession
of blue, and then the island light, the acacia,
the grounded beasts. Here, the iron smell of blood,
the sweet marrow, fields of grass and bone.
And there, the bowerbird.
Watch as he manicures his lawn, puts in all places
a bit of blue, a turning leaf. And then,
how the female finds him,
lacking. All that blue for nothing.
Donika Kelly: The second one shares the same title, it sort of creates a link where I don't have to refer. It— the sequencing sort of allows the poem to build in different kind of way or resonate in a different kind of way. And it's driven a little bit more by sound, like the repetition of the O sounds: “groomed ground, his wooing place.” And I think that that movement into sound helps me, sort of, then figure out, oh, is this what I'm interested in? It provides that sort of bridge between the originary experience of watching the documentary and then why I feel compelled to spend time with this bird and with this image.
The bowerbird finds
a bluer eye to line his nest,
his groomed ground,
his wooing place.
The bluer eye does break
and weep when the bowerbird
leaves or brings
leaves or branches or bits
of simple blue string.
The bluer eye does look and look
and flinch at the open beak,
the narrow maw,
the trauma of being dug
deeper into the arched
and closing bower.
The bowerbird has lost
his sense of blue, his sense
of eye, but the string tangles,
beautifully, on his dark, clean grounds.
Mark Bramhill: And with the third and final part of this sequence, the speaker of the poem speaks to us directly to address the idea of wooing a partner, and how it can feel foreign, as though she is a different species.
Donika Kelly: I think one of the things that the speaker knows is that she is not a bowerbird, right? And there's this sense of resignation. Like who will listen to the song of a nutbrown hen, right? Like that's not who does the singing. That's not who does the wooing.
A small hat, the fedora,
gray-blue banded tweed,
sits atop an unkempt nest,
my unpicked hair, a bromeliad
in the canopy. This
is a failure,
this ill-fitted hat. These boy things.
These men things. This hurried
disrobing. My ashen body
and untrimmed nails. But who will listen
to the song of a nutbrown hen?
Donika Kelly is the author of two books of poetry, Bestiary and The Renunciations. You can find links to those, and more episodes with great poetry, at our website BirdNote.org. I'm Mark Bramhill.
Senior Producer: John Kessler
Content Director: Allison Wilson
Managing Producer: Conor Gearin
Producer: Mark Bramhill
Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Satin Bowerbird ML 31901801 recorded by A. Spencer.
BirdNote’s theme was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.
© 2022 BirdNote April 2022
Narrator: Mark Bramhill
ID# poetry-02-2022-04-13 poetry-02