Thursday, August 16, 2018

Poetry Friday: Birds and James Bond

This week our Poetry Friday host, Christie, has asked for poems about birds, so I wrote one about a bird in my yard.

Bird in the Bougainvillea

When I need to identify
the little yellow bird in the bougainvillea,
I turn to my Birds of the West Indies book,
written by James Bond.
Ian Fleming had this book on his shelf, too,
in his home in Jamaica.
When he was naming his super-spy,
the book caught his eye,
and the ordinariness of the name
made it perfect.

The ordinariness
of the little bird in the bougainvillea
makes me long to know it.
It was there poking around the fuchsia blossoms
before I noticed it
and it will still be there
when my attention is, inevitably,
distracted by something more urgent.

The little yellow bird
is called a bananaquit.
James Bond says it is common
in Central and South America,
and is sometimes known as
Banana Bird,
Paw-paw Bird,
Sugar Bird,
Bessie Coban,
Yellow See-See,
Its song is “sibilant or wheezy,
such as zee-e-e-e-swees-te,
but sometimes a simple trill.”

A spy ought to blend in,
it seems to me,
not stand out with his martinis
and his flashy cars.
James Bond the ornithologist,
binoculars in hand,
puttering about in the garden,
would learn far more about
what was really going on
than James Bond the spy.

Here in Haiti,
where Audubon was born,
I snap a picture of the ordinary bananaquit
in the bougainvillea,
and give thanks
for people who pay attention
and birds that wheeze softly
among the leaves.

Ruth, from

Honesty compels me to admit that I didn't identify the bird by looking in the bird book. I sent the photo above to my brother, who is a birder, and who lives in the bananaquit's zone too, and he identified it for me, and then I looked it up in the bird book.  I find it hard to look up birds in the book because I don't know where to start, which family the bird might come from. When I page through the descriptions, and even the pictures, nobody stands out; they just all look like birds. But now that I know this guy's name, I am seeing bananaquits everywhere, in just the same way that once you learn a new word, suddenly it's in everything you read. How strange it is to live in a place for twenty-two years, and be unable to name one of the most common birds there. There are always new things to learn, so many of them. I'm giving thanks for my brother, and James Bond, and my family, and my students, and my friends, and everyone who teaches me every day.

Here are some links with more information about the ornithologist James Bond and the bananaquit, plus an opportunity to hear the soft wheezing.

James Bond's Wikipedia page
Birds of the West Indies and the James Bond Canon
"The Real James Bond"
A photography exhibit about the two James Bonds and their love for birds (birds, get it, get it?)
The Audubon page about the bananaquit

I can't wait to see the bird poems others have today.  Check out the roundup here.


Christie Wyman said...

Ruth -- I could not love your post more! And your poem is the perfect example of how poems are in fact teachers, to borrow from Amy Ludwig VanDerwater's brilliant book title. You've taught us not only about your beautiful bird, the bananaquit, but about the "real" James Bond! I think your bird is spying on you. Bravo! And to make you feel better, I'm terrible at identifying birds, too. One trick they taught us at Cornell was to look for several identifying marks and remember those for identifying later -- size, eye ring, patterns, etc... Thanks for taking up the challenge!

Molly Hogan said...

What a wonderful, rich post! I learned so much from your poem. The backstory about James Bond is fascinating and I love the image of the puttering gardening ornithologist compared to the urbane spy!

Linda Mitchell said...

Ha! What a great connection to James Bond. I love it. The setting, the's all so rich. I hope you look for a place to see this poem in print. It's a delight.

Kathryn Apel said...

What a fascinating poem! I love my Claremont Field Guide to the Birds of Australia! I'm a flicker - through the pages until I find one that seems to fit. (Though google also comes in handy, if you can note identifying features. Like I did recently with a spangled drongo, who I'm sure has not been here for the past 20+ years! I'm sure he's a newbie.) There's a lovely illustrators who I follow on insta who I'm sure could one day illustrate a bird book of her own. Such beautiful work!


Divine - like a babbling stream. Delightful and delicious.

Linda B said...

I love the story around this bananaquit, and what a good one it is, and your poem's voice is wonderful, Ruth. I have seen this bird, learned about it (but not James Bond) a long time ago when we spent time on St. Martin. They called in the 'sugar bird' there, but later I did look it up, learned the bananaquit name. I too struggle with identifying. Birds fly so swiftly by sometimes!

Michelle Kogan said...

Fascinating post Ruth. Your poem has woven a lovely image all about the Bananaquit. I really like your 4th stanza suggesting that
"A spy ought to blend in,
it seems to me,
not stand out with his martinis
and his flashy cars."

I love birds and history–your links were wonderful, especially the last one with the gorgeous image of the Bananaquit. I'm a supporter of Audubon, but I didn't know her was from Haiti. Thanks for the poem and sharing about all the connections!

Sally Murphy said...

Well, you learn something new every Poetry Friday! Loved learning the connection to James Bond, and also about the little bird. Thanks Ruth!

Kimberly Hutmacher said...

Your lovely poem taught me about a bird I had never heard of before. Thank you for sharing.

Brenda at FriendlyFairyTales said...

The hardest birds for me are the little brown ones. The ones with distinctive color seem fewer in number around me. I've learned to look at things like size, patterns of markings, especially around the eye and location as clues to what they are. The robin red breast makes it easy with his tendency to be on lawns, sporting his red belly, calmly looking my way, knowing he is far quicker than me.

I enjoyed learning about James Bond the flamboyant birder, namesake to an even more flamboyant spy.

Linda Stoll said...

Ruth, hi! So good to meet you this week. And the title you've given your online home is heart-warming indeed.

Bless you ...

Matt Forrest Esenwine said...

I love that not only do you share insight into the bird, but you play with the "James Bond" names and tie them into it!

Jone said...

I love the poem and the photo. What a name this sweet bird has. Thank you.

Rebecca Herzog said...

Ruth, I loved your poem! Not only was it beautiful, but I also learned a lot from it. I love the Bond connectionand how you tied the spy thread into the poem's narrative. Excellent!

Margaret Simon said...

I love the bird's name, bananaquit, but also the list of other names in your poem. We poets can get lost in the rabbit hole of research and emerge with concise poetry, like yours, that embraces and honors our world.

Kay said...

There is so much to love about your poem. I learned a lot--about the bananquit and the real life James Bond, some literary trivia, but most of all, I love the connections you draw between these things to remind us to pay attention. That seems to be a message I'm seeing everywhere these days.

Heidi Mordhorst said...

I find your poem to be INconcise in a most charming, informative and insightful way. This is a how-I'm-learning-it poem like the one you wrote about my radish photo, and that's a way of writing that seems to suit you very, very well!

Brenda at FriendlyFairyTales said...

Edward Gorey was fabulous. He left his mark on WBUR in Boston.