Lessons of a Bird Killed by a Window

cedar waxwing

Last week as I bicycled to my office, I came across a beautiful cedar waxwing dead outside my window. It recalled to mind a powerful poem by my former colleague Lucille Clifton, who had a way of finding broad social messages in seemingly small things. Note how we almost break our necks as we fly against her long title:

for the bird who flew against our window one morning and broke his natural neck

my window
is his wall.
in a crash of
he breaks the arrogance
of my definitions
and leaves me grounded
in his suicide.

As a black woman who saw racism up close (not to mention sexism and classism and child abuse), Lucille knew well how the world can be structured so that what benefits one person functions as a killing obstacle to someone else. The goal of her poetry, as she said many times, was “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”

What I particularly like about this poem is that she is willing to hold herself to the same standards. She is the privileged one here, her home an instance of habitat destruction—and literal destruction—for the bird. “Don’t you go letting yourself become arrogant,” I hear her telling herself. Through its suicide, she has been humbled and has rediscovered her ground. It is humans in general, Lucille included, who need afflicting in this instance.

If we carry her humility into the world and work to see it from the perspective of all involved, we will be motivated to make it better.

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  • I agree with you. I read and reread the poem and I am smitten by the fact that a collection simple words can invoke so many deep and truthful feelings. For us, a window is a means of escaping the prison of the concrete jungles we created and live in. We are the ones living unnaturally, arrogantly forgetting the rest of the living creatures sharing the shame space with us.

  • Robin Bates

    Yes, isn’t it amazing, Maria. I am struck by Lucille’s use of the word “arrogant,” which she uses in another poem, “wishes for sons,” about humans and nature. Although in that one, it’s her frustration that men fail to have the necessary humility because they don’t have to experience monthly periods. In her poem “generations,” meanwhile, she talks about the responsibility of humans to all the species they are killing off.

    I don’t know if it was a typo, but I like that you typed in “shame” where you might have meant “same.”

  • Sue

    Powerful. And we all need the constant reminders toward humility. I’m reading Kabul Beauty School right now, a memoir about an American who goes into Afghanistan and starts a beauty school to help women develop personally and be able to contribute economically to their households. And yet, she asks, as do all of us who try to be of help, do I really know what I’m doing?

    We are all blind in our situatedness, says a friend of mine, quoting a postmodern scholar who I can’t remember at this time.

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