Aphorisms Are for the Birds

Aphorisms Are for the Birds

Starling Murmuration, via Wikimedia Commons


Don’t count your chickens… the saying goes
But I’m not counting, I’m imagining
flocks of bids soaring, wheeling, roosting
in the tops of the tallest pine trees.
Who said anything about chickens, anyway?
I’m dreaming murders of crows, murmurations
of starlings, twitterings of sparrows,
cooings of mourning doves, screechings of jays.
I’m so enthused my metaphor is flying away
from me, beyond my grasp into the bluest sky.

Don’t put all your eggs back into their nest
Even though you know you should be cautious
As you thread the eye of hope’s needle.
Still the siren voices of the birds among
the high clouds call your soul to dreaming,
winging flight, whir and spin right off the edge
of the cliff, falling into the deepest
blue of anticipation. Hope is the thing
with feathers that casts caution
into the dustbin of history
and indulges every lick of sunlight
while it lasts because you never know when
the dark rain clouds will descend once more.

Don’t cry over all the hours you spilled out
dreaming of better days. What’s gone was well spent,
an investment of hope which your thirsty soul
needed to gulp. The milk of human kindness
you should not stint to pour out for yourself
as well as for others. Are you not human?
Do you also not need the bread of dreams?
Why should you be kinder to the stranger
than to yourself, poor lonely wanderer?

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  • What I like about this poem is how much I had to read it over and over in order to understand what you were saying. There seem to be many layers to it… about self reflection and self kindness. And yet there is a balance between being pragmatic and being a dreamer. You need to have both, and sometimes as a busy and intelligent person dreaming and getting lost in thought feels like idleness. Time is the most finite resource we have and we don’t know when it will run out for any of us. I recently bemoaned how much time I don’t let myself think. I think writing poetry helps. Thanks for sharing your work!

    • Unusually, this one started out with a writing exercise prompt from a book I got from the library, The Practice of Poetry. I think I mentioned it in another post. I really didn’t expect to get anything I liked from doing these exercises, but I figured they’d help me get unstuck.

      The prompt asked you to start with an aphorism and change it in some way and also provided a list of words from which you were supposed to choose five: cliff, needle, voice, whir, blackberry, cloud, mother, lick.

      But I think why it worked as a poem was because my first quick take was to connect ‘don’t count your chickens before they hatch” to my excitement over Lucy having negative reactions on her allergy test. We all started immediately imagining how awesome life will be if she can eat dairy and wheat and corn and eggs. So there was that tension between wanting to hope and knowing that we still have to actually do the oral challenge. And I wrote a first draft of the first stanza that was literally describing that. And then I realized I hadn’t used any of the target words. So I flipped the page in my notebook and started over, but decided to ditch the chickens. It was a flash of insight or inspiration, the question, who said anything about chickens anyway?

      And I was also thinking about The Wind in the Door which I just finished reading to the kids in which the cherubim says several times that he didn’t count the stars, he Named them. He has no idea how many there are, but he knows them each by name. So I had this connection in the back of my head, replacing counting with naming, math with poetry.

      Then I thought that idea had sort of played out, it was a nice little stanza, but I was done. I decided to tackle another aphorism but changed don’t put all your eggs in one basket to don’t put them back in the nest. The connection was I was thinking of egg aphorisms. And I was still thinking about that tension between hope and caution, between letting your imagination run away with you in excitement, and being cautiously optimistic. I tend to be cautious, but I’d really let my imagination run wild when we came home from the allergist and the kids and Dom and I were all excitedly listing all the foods that maybe Lucy will be able to eat.

      And then the third stanza began with the aphorism don’t cry over spilled milk, but I changed it to being about not regretting the self-indulgence of letting yourself hope. I was also thinking of a friend who had asked for advice about letting her kids know that she’s pregnant. She’s been very afraid of miscarriage and is worried about having them get excited about the baby only to have the baby die. And I’d told her that we tell the kids right away because we did always plan to tell them about the death of the baby (should it happen again, since we lost Francis when Bella was still a baby, it was always a hypothetical, but one we thought about and discussed) and it seems unfair for children to be told about the death without getting to celebrate the discovery of new life. So there was that whole idea of how to balance allowing yourself to rejoice over good news while preparing for bad.

      And the part about being kind to yourself and showing yourself the same compassion you’d show a stranger came out of another conversation I’d had with a friend that morning. So the exercise let me work through a bunch of big emotional ideas and gave them form. It was really surprising how it came together and when I read it afterwards I was really pleased. Trying to fit in the random list of words let my subconscious make these inspired connections between disparate things and trying to work in aphorisms really worked for me because I usually write my best poetry when I’m incorporating bits of quotations. My muse is like a bird making a nest and likes to use phrases and images from other places as structural elements.

      So I also gathered in the idea of the camel in the eye of the needle and the Gospel about giving bread to the hungry and drink to the thirsty and thinking about how loving your neighbor as yourself means that you have to love yourself. If you should feed the hungry stranger, you also need to treat yourself as a hungry stranger sometimes, to care for the distressed self. So I was thinking of self care as well.

  • As a person who has over decades sternly forbidden myself this indulgence of hope, I have written the last stanza on a piece of paper and put it on my desk.
    Thank you!

  • I’ve been meaning to come back and comment on this poem, but then the familymobile was involved in an accident and has almost certainly been totaled. No injuries to anyone, thank God; now we’re waiting on the adjuster to pronounce his sentence.

    I forgot anything in particular I was going to say, except that, like Zagorka above, the third stanza is my favorite. Keep going!