Yesterday we took the camera and binoculars to the Deschutes again. In town. Between Cumberland and Columbia, part of the time the Old Mill commercial district at our left, the river to the right and northwest. Late afternoon. A solitary swan repeatedly dipped his head beneath the water. A single swan was sufficient to remind us of hiking up the Knik Valley in Alaska each spring, hoping to see the first swans that had migrated along the coast of Canada and southeast Alaska, that flew from Prince William Sound over the mountains and ice fields, swans that somehow knew where to find the first thawing lake, the first open water.
On the Deschutes, besides these water fowl, there were Canada geese, mallards with their unmistakable gleaming green heads, and three mergansers napping, untidy orange heads tucked backwards into their back feathers but, disappointingly, they floated un-photogenically in the shadow of an overhanging bush.
As part of a birthday greeting, my friend Bridgette wrote: “Wishing you a wonderful year of poetic imaginings . . . beginning in delight and ending in wisdom, as per Robert Frost in The Figure a Poem Makes.”
I found Frost’s essay, The Figure A Poem Makes, at the library and learned it had appeared as the introduction to his Collected Poems published in 1939. Frost:
“It should be of the pleasure of a poem itself to tell how it can. The figure a poem makes. It begins in delight and ends in wisdom….”
Between delight and wisdom surely there is a mystery beyond planning and itemizing, or building a structure intended to withstand earthquakes or hurricanes. Frost explains:
“. . . [the poem] finds its own name as it goes and discovers the best waiting for it in some final phrase at once wise and sad—the happy-sad blend of the drinking song.” (Robert Frost)
But is Frost suggesting a recipe? Or, that the poet is an archer aiming for a “…final phrase at once wise and sad…”? As I line up some of yesterday’s photos with captions written in the spirit of Haiku (February is National Haiku Writing Month), I begin to rearrange lines in the captions so the most mysterious is last, à la Frost’s The Figure A Poem Makes.
Walking along the Deschutes River bike path on a pleasant January afternoon, we repeatedly encountered people who asked if we had seen the owl and then offered tips (“…past the second bridge, look for a lot of people with binoculars…”) and yet like with the swan, we bring our own experience—of a great gray owl balanced on a metal fencepost in a wintery twilight or, in summer, a great horned owl that at dusk swooped through trees so close that I heard the whisper of air through feathers.
Experience becomes stories and stories become expectations. Living in Alaska, it seemed normal that rivers and lakes froze. But here, in Central Oregon, the Deschutes stays open in winter—a river not an ice-trail.
A couple weeks ago, south of town and upriver, we saw ice ledges had formed along the banks when the water was higher and mid-river boulders were coated in ice but melting. From the trail at the top of a rock face, we looked down and across the river to a flat area in the sun where people had tied a rope between trees and a man balanced precariously above the ground, his arms stretched like wings, the tight-rope dipping beneath his weight.
The delight of birdwatching along the Deschutes River in January includes the play of light and how the flow of water changes between bridges and dams (there are many). Some places the river glassily reflects cottages and small vessels—brightly colored canoes or kayaks—and trees, the thin yellow branches of weeping willows, shrubby alders, and tall pines. Or a breeze whips the flags on the footbridge by the Old Mill District and ripples the water so photos become patterns of light and dark, like a mirror etched with shadows.
Birds of course are the poet’s inspiration, providing metaphors — of flight and feathers, and fragility, but also the strength to travel great distances, and the mystery of their wisdom.
Source: “The Figure A Poem Makes” can be found in The Robert Frost Reader, Poetry and Prose. Edward Connery Lathem and Lawrance Thompson, Editors. Henry Holt and Company (2002).