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The greatest injury to Fox Sparrow might be that scientists are trying to build a mechanical bird to replicate all he can do. But what a consolation it is that they can’t yet fathom his genius — that when he moves just the toe of his wing, he can change the direction of all his feathers, just so. How he can make his feathers stick together with a force greater than Velcro and then separate them at will. Not to mention his song.

And their song. The mystery that all those technical elements can create a moment completely liberated from them.


(Here is Where We Meet, by Summer Lee, 2017. Cyanotypes, fabric, wood.)

There was a time when the mystery itself was worshipped. And that painters knew the impossibility of capturing it, but their religion was to try, for hundreds of years. But in these days, even though no one now can say exactly how a word becomes flesh, we are fed so much technical explanation about this material and that, the biography of that painter and historical event. Circular tales plunging us into neurosis. What else is neurosis but the inability to cope with uncertainty. And the delusion we can ward off any risk. They knew then, as it goes, the angel arrives even if Mary turns her head.

If ever you have held dead Fox Sparrow in your hands you also know that nothing else could suffocate life more than the self-congealing words we wrap around it. Even if it is, and it always is, to try and comfort.

Fra Angelico made a point to put the fallen Adam and Eve leaving the garden in the same scene as the Annunciation. He knew the word can separate, but also in the same scene obliterate all back into the messianic. Caroline’s poems do this many times a week. And maybe that’s why I tire you, to set out so selfishly about here with words from time to time. To remind myself, the truth and untruth of language.

To remind myself that no one can explain how the paint in my watercolor pan can bring Fox Sparrow to me. And how Fox Sparrow can leave just like that, just because I wrote it here.

Mary, in an economy of words we can’t fathom today, said,

Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.

Let me greet all such incursions on my cautionary house of being with such grace. To find repose in the pain of resignation. Not a lazy resignation, but at the end of intense searching, like that for Fox Sparrow. I have read volumes on his kindred, and created innumerable treatises on all the possible places he could be when he isn’t here. Some dark and treacherous, like facing decisions I must make for my child, the lightning-lit rain pelting Fox Sparrow as he embarks in his night flight home. Some of his places are as light-filled as the clouds of Veronese, overlooking restless humanity. And sometimes as majestic as the vanishing valleys into the boreal forest I will never visit. Most of all, it’s the perch on the thin wire weirdly placed in that painting. Where he peers down on a woman who has been greeted by an angel, telling her that her life is about to be changed by no fault of her own. And of course Fox Sparrow knowing what we don’t know: that we are all fallen. And that a word could turn into flesh, spirit into form, and save us.

fra angelico prado 3

Right now Fox Sparrow is under my feeder scratching the dirt in this humble coastal yard in front of my house. The more hungry he is, the closer he lets me. To see his black eyes see me, see this place, that somehow guided him here to me. Back to the emptiness.

The YWCP chorus, directed by Susan McMane.