April 26, 1785 – John James Audubon is born, American ornithologist, naturalist, and painter best know for his extensive studies of American birds and his detailed illustrations of the birds in their natural habitats. The Birds of America is his masterwork, a portal into the natural world. Printed between 1827 and 1838, it contains 435 life-size watercolors of North American birds (in the Havell edition), all reproduced from hand-engraved plates, and is considered to be the archetype of wildlife illustration.
Billy Collins (March 22, 1941 – ) was dubbed “the most popular poet in America” by Bruce Weber in the New York Times. He served a two-term U.S. Poet Laureate (2001-2003), and has published many poetry collections, including Questions About Angels; The Art of Drowning; and Nine Horses: Poems. It was Questions About Angels, published in 1991, that put him in the literary spotlight. Collins is the editor of Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds.
There is no question that Audubon’s work gave humanity a greater understanding and appreciation for the extraordinary variety and beauty of birds, but Billy Collins reminds us of how Audubon was able to create his incredibly detailed studies.
To read “The Birds of America” by Billy Collins, please click:
The Birds of America
by Billy Collins
Early this morning
in a rumpled bed,
listening to birdsong
through the propped-open windows,
I saw on the ceiling
the figure of John J. Audubon
the pliant body of an expired duck.
I could see its slender, limp neck,
rich chestnut crown,
and soft grey throat,
and bright red bill,
even the strange pink legs.
And when I closed my eyes again
I could hear him whisper
in his hybrid Creole accent
I have taken your life
so that some night a man
might open a book
and run his hand over your feathers,
so that he could come close enough
to study your pale brown flecks,
your white chin patch,
and the electric green of your neck,
so that he might approach
without frightening you into the sky,
and wonder how strange
to the earth he has become,
so that he might see by his lamp light
the glistening in your eye
then take to the air
and fly alongside you.
“The Birds of America” appeared in the June 1996 issue of Poetry magazine, © 1996 by Billy Collins
Goosander painting by John James Audubon from The Birds of America