adapted from the Latin by Tom Sleigh
It’s dead, poor thing, our parrot from the Indies
Where dawn first wakened Polly to our talk.
Dear Polly, old Polly, we could never figure out
If we were right in thinking you a “he”?
Each day you mimicked back our silly “Polly want a cracker?”,
Rasping it out pitch perfect, with real style.
Now, in just one night, your feathers start to fade.
Philomela, listen: If you’re still weeping over
What Ismarus did to you, weep at this too:
You’ve more than served your term of grief;
And besides, your pain lies buried in the past,
Turn those tears for Itys to this brilliant bird’s
Plight, join the song of his fellow creatures
Winging faithfully to his funeral rites—
Wings beating breasts, talons tearing plumes,
Whistles sadder than the bugle playing “Taps.”
And sadder than all the rest, your old friend
The mourning dove moans and moans—all your lives
The two of you together; Pylades to Orestes
No more loving and true.
But what does friendship matter
Now, or your gorgeous feathers, what did your skill
In talking the way we do, alert and exact
To all our varied tones, a genius of a bird, really,
In giving our words back, oh what good
Did your gift do, so pleasing to my Corinna
The moment she heard you? Your wings’ luster
Made emeralds green with envy, your beak’s
Punic red and saffron outshone rubies and gold.
Bird, glory of the hovering, clear air,
You’ve fallen back to earth forever.
Envy, I guess, took aim and struck you down, you
Who wouldn’t hurt a fly. Talk talk talk
Was your delight, not like quail who bicker
Day in day out the same as old married couples
Stewed in their petty, long-lived quarrels.
To make much of little was your art:
Talk talk talk you loved so well you hardly
Took a moment to crack a nut. A few poppy seeds,
You fell fast asleep; a drop or two of pure water
Soothed your throat.
The greedy vulture keeps on
Swooping down, hawks circle on thermals high up
In the air, jackdaws continue forecasting rain,
And the raven, hated by Minerva in her
Lustrous armor, has nine lives to lead
Before meeting up with Fate. All these thrive,
But you, parrot, virtuoso of our divinely human speech,
Brought to us here from where the world ends,
You’ve flown beyond our power to call you back—
It’s always like this, Fate snatches up the best
While the worst take their own sweet time.
Protesilaus died, and guess who stood around
Lounging by his grave? Thersites, that’s who.
And Hector, too, dragged in the dust,
Fed the vultures while Paris looked on.
And why remember my love’s prayers and vows
For you, her devotions swept out to sea by a southern gale.
On the seventh dawn, the last you’d ever see,
Fate had spun your thread right to the end
But words still leaped into your dying throat,
“Corinna, farewell, farewell, farewell . . .”
In Elysium, at the bottom of a hill, a grove
Of oaks perpetually shades moist earth
Sprouting grass that glistens always green.
Here, if what we know to doubt is ever true,
Birds like you flock together, and vultures
And raptors out of instinct keep away.
Here swans glide on their pure reflections,
The phoenix rises from its ashes, the only one
Of its kind, the peacock of Juno spreads
For her pleasure those feathers in the sun,
And the dove nestles in the plumage of her lover.
This will be our dear bird’s home, his human words
Luring all the rest to listen.
And over his bones
A little tomb, tomb so small it’s just his size,
Will be built for him, with a homely slate stone
Just large enough to say:
This says all there is
To say about how much she misses me, I who spoke
With skill beyond a bird’s Corinna’s loving words.
Tom Sleigh’s books include After One (Houghton Mifflin, 1983), Waking (University of Chicago Press, 1990), The Chain (University of Chicago Press, 1996), The Dreamhouse (University of Chicago Press, 1996), and a translation of Euripides's Heracles (Oxford University Press, 2000). Far Side of the Earth is forthcoming. He has won the Shelley Prize from the Poetry Society of America, an Individual Writer's Award from Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Fund, and grants from the Guggenheim and NEA. He teaches at New York University and Dartmouth College. (5/2002)