Essay on Music in Springtime

by Jennifer Atkinson


Perched unflapped on the low-slung maple
the catbird combs his charcoal wing.
He drags the barbs, shaft to tip,
through his narrow beak—feather by ordinary
gray feather.
                     Lack-luster mimid,
his call’s a cat’s cry, his song
a crazy quilt of chirps—mock
titmouse, near vireo, and not-quite
cardinal (or was that a clumsy cover
of the robin’s song?)
                                   Why not
claim a song of his own? What advantage,
evolutionarily speaking, lies in self-disguise?
What’s the use to catbird-kind of wooing
incognito? Is he fooling predators by seeming
other just as likely
                               passerine prey?
Will impressive performance win him sweeter
berries, stronger chicks, or darn
the tight weave of a sturdier nest?
Maybe his mimicry—those bits
of this and that
                          cadged song—
is meant for a catbird beloved, evidence
of wit and memory, proof that this cover-
band virtuoso has heard it all
and been around, faced winter
and hawk and lives to
                                   sing the tale.
What, eavesdropping, I wonder,
would single catbirds value? What
would they listen for in his musical hodge-podge?
Exact mimicry? Tonal variation?
Turns of phrase?
                           Intricate collage?
Or merely the sheer number of sampled
trills and warbles? And us humans—
what’s the value to our species
of wondering and unsing-alongable music,
of loafing and listening,
                                       alert and attentive
at the green verge, the dappled ecotone
of song and speech?