Massachusetts Audubon Chart No. 1, 1898

In the corner of an antique store
hanging by a nail, I bumped into
this water-stained, frayed-edge chart.
Ingenious at getting twenty-six birds —
from chimney swift to chipping sparrow,
all life-sized — on 27 x 42 inches,
Fuertes painted his stiff birds posed
in characteristic attitudes
on a convenient streamside dead tree, on reeds,
and on the wing in the background sky.

After I bought the chart and hung it
near the stairs, I found almost all twenty-six
are right here, going by
at various times outside my window.
Seeing the little golden crown on a kinglet,
or the tail-splash of red that sets off
the catbird’s silky grey, puts me in good cheer.
And there’s the sudden paradise of intimacy
when I turn my binoculars toward a house wren
nesting under the skewed lid of my propane tank.

None of this is life-changing
or halts the numbing dailiness of chores,
but since I hung this chart of birds,
I’ve come to think that what we know of our lives
often has nothing to do with understanding,
but with some accidental loveliness
we put our hopes in, the excess, say,
of a thrush fluting its elongated ee — oo – lay;
or the way a flock of goldfinches
yellow the air they fly through without asking.

Robert Cording teaches English and creative writing at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. He is the author of six collections of poems, including, most recently, Walking with Ruskin.