poets I’m reading: Lament for Passenger Pigeons by Judith Wright


I’ve been searching for Judith Wright‘s poem, Lament for Passenger Pigeons for a year or two now.

It was a mention of the extinct Passenger Pigeon in this post by Ashley Hackshaw that prompted another hunt, this time successful. Ashley takes exquisite photographs and paints and writes with equal skill. Her blog is a treat to read.

Here is Wright’s poem that speaks truths of eradication and extinction and the culpability of humans.


Lament for Passenger Pigeons – Judith Wright

Don’t ask for the meaning, ask for the use – Wittgenstein

The voice of water as it flows and falls

the noise air makes against earth-surfaces

have changed; are changing to the tunes we choose.


What wooed and echoed in the pigeon’s voice?

We have not heart the bird. How reinvent

that passenger, its million wings and hues,


when we have lost the bird, the thing itself,

the sheen of life on flashing long migrations?

Might human musics hold it, could we hear?


Trapped in the fouling nests of time and space,

we turn the music on; but it is man,

and it is man who leans a deafening ear.


And it is man we eat and man we drink

and man who thickens round us like a stain.

Ice at the polar axis smells of me.


A word, a class, a formula, a use:

that is the rhythm, the cycle we impose.

The sirens sang us to the ends of sea,


and changed to us; their voices were our own,

jug jug to dirty ears in dirtied brine.

Pigeons and angels sang us to the sky


and turned to metal and a dirty need.

The height of sky, the depth of sea we are,

sick with a yellow stain, a fouling dye.


Whatever Being is, that formula,

it dies as we pursue it past the word.

We have not asked the meaning, but the use.


What is the use of water when it dims?

The use of air that whines an emptiness?

The use of glass-eyed pigeons caged in glass?


We listen to the sea, that old machine,

to air that hoarsens on earth-surfaces

and has no angel, no migrating cry.


What is the being and the end of man?

Blank surfaces reverb a human voice

whose echo tells us that we choose to die:


or else, against the blank of everything,

to reinvent that passenger, that bird-

siren-and-angel image we contain

essential in a constellating word.

To sing of Being, its escaping wing,

to utter absence in a human chord

and recreate the meaning as we sing.




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