Sunday, July 31, 2005

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

a waxwing, Bombycilla cedrorum

During our visit to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Lake Superior, and the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Molly and I spotted some waxwings with the help of a copy of a Peterson Field Guide. If I'd ever seen these birds before, I had never been aware of what I was looking at because until our Michigan trip I never knew their distinctive markings. I was delighted to have learned what these birds look like because, as a name at least, I had known about waxwings from (fictional American poet) John Shade's verse from Nabokov's novel Pale Fire:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff -- and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.

In his autobiographical poem, Shade frequently refers to birds by species. Both of his parents, he explains, were ornithologists.

I may not have picked up on it when I first read Pale Fire as an undergraduate, but these lines now present me with an allegory: even after death, the artist lives on -- achieves a kind of immortality -- within the mirror of art. But this allegorical interpretation can't exhaust the vividness and sensual appeal of the waxwing's markings and the subtle gradations of its colors.