Audubon perfected a new way of drawing birds that he called his.
On the bottom of each watercolor he put “drawn from nature”
which meant he shot the birds
and took them home to stuff and paint them.
Because he hated the unvarying shapes
of traditional taxidermy
he built flexible armatures of bent wire and wood
on which he arranged bird skin and feathers–
whole eviscerated birds–
in animated poses.
Not only his wiring but his lighting was new.
Audubon colors dive in through your retina
like a searchlight
roving shadowlessly up and down the brain
until you turn away.
And you do turn away.
There is nothing to see.
You can look at these true shapes all day and not see the bird.
Audubon understands light as an absence of darkness,
truth as an absence of unknowing.
It is the opposite of a peaceful day in Hokusai.
Imagine if Hokusai had shot and wired 219 lions
and then forbade his brush to paint shadow.
“We are what we make ourselves,” Audubon told his wife
when they were courting.
In the salons of Paris and Edinburgh
where he went to sell his new style
this Haitian-born Frenchman
as a noble rustic American
wired in the cloudless poses of the Great Naturalist.
They loved him
for the “frenzy and ecstasy”
of true American facts, especially
in the second (more affordable) octavo edition (Birds of America, 1844).
[From Men in Off Hours.]
(Critics seem to object that Carson’s poems read like essays, which are what she used to write. OK. But as an admirer of Brecht and Pound and Larkin, I have to ask: Why shouldn’t the essay aspire to the condition of a poem, and vice versa?)