Tuesday, April 29, 2014


I was instantly angry when I saw Katrina van Grouw’s The Unfeathered Bird in the window of Labyrinth Books in Princeton. After all, had I not definitively nailed the subject of unfeathered birds in my poem with that title?

She was not only stealing my title but had expanded it into a coffee table art book. My poem had been published in 1987 in the magazine Abraxas in a spread with other poems by fellow birder Warren Woessner. Here is the true and  original Unfeathered Bird –

Without ever raising the question of circles, preferring the greater gravity of descent, the ease of downhill progress, what are we?

Less than fledgling, novices at our gorilla shape.

The anchor, in other words, going to its place, slips down the incline; the bones thicken in scale, from bird to man and down. A mood tumbles into a thing, a warbler, amplified to tuba.

          It’s the mechanism of not flying. We go along with our bones, ideas that companion a growing weight, sinkers racing to the bottom.

          The axeblade drives into the wood. Like the rain, we fall, tieclips, and matchbooks, and Chapsticks, and paperclips, and staples, and bottlecaps.

Birds crash into glass windows. I was sitting typing by a window in a cottage in the middle of Ontario when a robin crashed into that window. I finished the paragraph and went outside to see what happened to the bird. It was not merely dead; it was half-consumed by ground-dwelling bugs and mites. The skeleton was emerging.

Whole flocks of migrating birds are wiped out crashing into New York skyscrapers. At dawn one spring morning walking downtown to the Staten Island Ferry I encountered a dead flock of migrating warblers. I’m a mediocre birder and I did not recognize the species; -- hmm. I scooped one up and wrapped it in paper and went back to my apartment on Staten Island. I still didn’t know what it was and decided to postpone leafing through my bird books. Leaving the birdie in his wrapper, and put him the freezer and completely forgot about him.  And a month later Barbara Minsky said she was hungry, and went out to my kitchen and started puttering and  – screamed! Love never lasts.

Katrina van Grouw filled her freezer, and her mother’s freezer, and a sizable number of the freezers of friends with dead birds. She then dissected them and made wonderful paintings. Her The Unfeathered Bird is an  Anatomy for Birders. I’m pretty sure that van Grouw, before embarking on this project, did not read my book proposal Anatomy for Sports Fans. Man, if she did, I’m pissed all over again.

No, I’m not. If Katrina van Grouw did happen to come across my poem, and took the title unconsciously, I am honored. Her bird bones are as exquisite as Georgia O’Keefe’s skulls. Unfeathered is a word which occurs naturally to anyone wondering what makes a bird fly, or swim, or sing – or lay an egg. Feathered birds are the matter of field guides. You can tell a bird’s species by her arrangement of feathers. Birds don’t dress up their feathers for birders only, however. Seabirds, as van Grouw remarks, are countershaded. The feathers of the shearwater and albatross are white below. Fish looking up see nothing but the sun. They are dark above. Airbound hunters lose them in the  wine-dark waves.

Birds feed at dusk and dawn. Their hours are brief.  

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Blogger Warren Woessner said...

Steel wool wind
scours gray water.
Blackbird fans
red and orange sparks
on his wings.

--Warren Woessner

I think that there are two types of poem about birds. The first primarily celebrates the bird ("To A Skylark"). The second, rarer type, places the bird in the context of an ecosystem, and the observer's reactions are less prominent.)

11:54 AM  
Blogger Tom said...


So spring
threw all its birds
at us at once.

The sky is thick
with them -- the rose-
breasted grosbeaks,

the cardinals
and the bluebirds,
the indigo

buntings, the white-
throated sparrows.
They are all so

bright, so frenzied
with color, with
sun upon them.

We feared
it was too late
for birds this year.

We feared winter
would never end.
We feared the sky

would stay gun-metal-
grey. Then spring threw

these crazy wild
birds at us. So
now we're saying,

Amen, winter.
And, yes, Amen,
spring, and Thank you!

5:15 AM  
Blogger roberta said...


Bird pictures!

12:03 PM  
Blogger roberta said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12:04 PM  
Blogger Linda Gillen said...

Hey Michael how are you? lindagillen@verizon.net

6:18 AM  
Blogger Michael Andre said...

My first red tailed hawk was up in a tree with a snake in his beak. The snake was writhing but then the two flew away together. Isn’t there a flag with a snake biting an eagle? And then there was the red tailed hawk and pigeon luncheon at the Convention Center in Philly. Took him a long time to eat that chicken -- for so I translated it; I myself consume entire chickens from time to time, though rarely alive. Actually, never alive. Finally yesterday a red-plumed Princeton dude with a huge all-Ivy wingspan ate the beloved of one cute gray wailing bushy-tailed squirrel. Indeed I would never have noticed the redtail at his repast had I not first heard a repetitive shrill birdlike call from a bare tree above. All I saw at first was the little squirrel distressed. We lose our companion and grieve.

6:28 AM  
Blogger Katrina van Grouw said...

Hi Michael.
Wonderful poem - I like it a lot. And thanks for the excellent review.
I didn't pinch your title, though - I thought it up during a long car journey. I came up with about a million lousy alternatives before arriving at that one, and immediately knew that that was the perfect title for the book. Then I anguished for hours over whether to include the hyphen in "un-feathered"!
All the best, and thanks again, Katrina

7:19 AM  
Blogger Michael Andre said...

Katrina, I suspect we both came across the phrase someplace else. Where I couldn't say. We probably plagiarized unconsciously. I too was excited when I "invented" the phrase.

5:25 AM  
Blogger Katrina van Grouw said...

Good to hear from you, but nope - I can definitely say it wasn't even unconsciously plagiarized. It was a methodical, slow, slow thought process.

The title of my next book, 'Unnatural Selection', however, is definitely 'borrowed'. To that I freely admit.

11:42 PM  
Blogger Michael Andre said...

I utterly detest clichés but here's one: Great minds think alike. But the same phrase functions differently for us: Titles for books take me a long time too but titles for poems are instant inspirations.

This sucky winter is about done. I'm day-dreaming of taking the A train to Jamaica Bay and seeing some sea birds!

8:23 PM  

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