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Bewildering Stories

Challenge 375 Response

“Flight of Starlings”

Oonah V. Joslin

In Oonah V. Joslin’s “Flight of Starlings”:
  1. Can the sun cast shadows?
  2. What might the “lost cousins” be? What is “in mourning for the lost cousins”: the birds or the tree leaves?
  3. Why are the birds described as “metalled”?
  4. “Two separate clouds ... slick back down onto another tree.” Readers might expect “slink”; what image might “slick” evoke?
  5. How does the poem establish a tension between determinism and uncertainty?

It takes light to make shade. No object ever casts a shadow by itself. It is only by contrast to light that we see shade — where the light falls less than in the surrounding area. Of course our artificial light sources can cast shadows too. But in this case the ‘veins’ or thin, purpled lines of shade, are caused by the sun’s low angle. Indeed where the sun is high, there would be no shadows, which makes sense enough of the image.

The tree tops once ‘colonised’ by leaves are bare in February. So, when many starlings land all in one tree they seem like a canopy of black leaves. They, too, people the treetops and that makes them seem kin to the dead leaves. They seem dressed in mourning black.

Starlings are not truly black. They are speckled birds. To me their mottled patterns resemble beaten metal and the colours too vary: purple-grey to black. Were I modelling one I’d use pewter. But they are also very hardy birds and quite mechanical in their movement. Their sharp beaks pick at any food source at all — little ornithological robots.

The word “slick” is what starlings are. They are smooth operators, streamlined to their role: sky rats. A cloud of them rising and cascading down, flows as smoothly as a liquid, gloopy to the ground like oil — and they have that petrol darkness too. Both individually and as a flying mass, they change colour and defy the eye. Yes, starlings are smooth operators.

The poet is very aware that this entire experience is an impression only and she doesn’t know what the starlings are actually doing or why. She shows her hand on this in the lines:

Who chooses? Who knows?
The screech goes up again.
Cloud covers the sun.

For a moment she feels enlightened by their behaviour but the realisation of ignorance comes with the clouding over — light once again makes shade. This time the shadow is intellectual. There is a suggestion in the final three lines:

I trudge

that the world of the starlings is so other, it cannot be known. The poet is Earthbound and knows nothing of flight. The ‘I’ shows the poet as alone and not part of that collective that moves as one. The word ‘trudge’ is the shadow equivalent to their ‘flight’ just as the moment of silence:

The cry

is a shadow equivalent to their ‘screech’.

So this is a poem of contrasts and despite the centred symmetry of it, it presents no real shape. The lines are not of determinate length. There is no pattern here — it is illusory, just as there is no pattern to the birds’ flight. They move:

in patterns known only to themselves.

There are strays, sudden silences; this is a ragged and random product of nature — patterns in the chaos. And the poet is suggesting that if patterns do exist, perhaps it is only because we want them to and because we make it so.

Copyright © 2010 by Oonah V. Joslin

Thank you for a fascinating explication, Oonah! Please write more of them for us.

On a technical, nitpicky, definitionary note, I would point out that only backlit objects can cast a shadow. Thus, the Sun could cast a shadow, in a manner of speaking, only if it partially eclipsed another star. Of course, the sun is the primary source of light permitting objects to cast shadows, but as you point out, artificial light can do that, too.

In “Starlings,” I’ll cheerfully grant you the poetic license.


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