a place for sideways trains of thought
Listen to the poem here
In early winter every year
the starlings in their hundred thousands
come to Rome.
They populate the branches of the trees
from where their shit rains down
in abundance and unceasingly.
Umbrellas must be opened
as you rush across the road,
weathering their excremental storm.
They whistle, grate and screech hysterically.
I’ve always wondered whether
it is the overwhelming thrill of being a horde
which causes them to shed
so many city-stopping droppings or whether,
conversely, it’s the collective defecation
which drives them to this state of frenzied ecstasy.
But then, at once and all together, they
take off. They fly as if
a giant hand were stirring up the sky
and they were swirling foam upon it.
Great swarms arching
at breakneck speed
across the air
splitting and recombining,
in balls, bursts, spirals and abrupt
Birds flying in all directions inside
one greater common course
so that it would not be hard to believe
that skiddily those flocks are shaping,
too swiftly for our earthly eyes,
the secret letters
of a text of revelation
high above our heads.
It is magnificent.
It is, it is.
A pity then that these displays,
at some point have to end;
the starlings all regain their trees
and at that very instant,
if you are thereabouts,
a sudden truth descends:
shit – it strikes you –
sometimes outdoes magnificence
Phillip Hill 2017
I can’t say I ever appreciated starlings much before I discovered that Mozart kept one as a pet for three years. My impression of starlings was formed by the experience of having multitudes of them descend on Rome in autumn behaving like a million drunken football fans.
Their formation flying is pretty impressive, you can’t deny that. They soar up high in the sky and fill it like an aerobatics team with a thousand jets . They expand, contract, make sharp turns, ascend, descend, branch out, regroup. You can’t predict what they will do. It resembles a frenzied motor-driven kaleidoscope with just one colour: black.
The problem is when they come down and settle on a couple of trees. Settle is the wrong word. The collective noun for starlings is a “murmuration” but whoever invented that was deaf or was in bed, half-drunk, with a cushion on his head and the starlings were five miles away when he heard them. I would suggest “obstreperation”, “altercation”, “stridulation” or “riotation”. They don’t settle on trees, there are always countless numbers swarming around them in a state of great excitement shrieking and shitting on everything. I have always wondered whether they are shitting because they are excited or whether they are excited because they are shitting. Read more…