Monday, March 12, 2007

Polyglot

From the peak of the roof he sings. Or shall I call it jabbering. All morning. My wife loves it. When I'm trying to write and he's yammering away outside the window I sometimes feel like taking a pot shot. But it's a sin to kill a mockingbird, says Atticus, in Harper Lee's story. And so it is.

Mimus polyglottos,: "many-tongued mime." The northern mockingbird is a consummate plagiarizer, stealing the calls of dozens of other birds and using them as its own. In 1725, Mark Catesby, one of the earliest naturalists to explore the southeastern United States, wrote of the mockingbird: "It is justly called the Queen of all singing birds. From March to August it sings incessantly, day and night with the greatest variety of notes; and, to complete its compositions, borrows from the whole choir, and repeats to them their own tunes with such artful melody, that it is equally pleasing and surprising."

I grew up with mockingbirds in Chattanooga. These days, it is the mascot of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Scrappy , they call him. I've never been to a UTC football game, but I imagine mockingbirds sitting on the uprights of the goal posts mocking the opposing teams. It's hard to think of that part of the country without a Mimus polyglottos on every prominence singing its heart out.

They arrived here in the Bahamas sometime early in the last century and made themselves at home, displacing the Bahamas mockingbirds, their less vocal cousins. "Rank bird, how it persists./ Showoff. Not singing. Mimicking, cleverly/ mocking my dream to hold this day forever," says Grace Schulman in her latest book of poems.

Well, yes, one person's music is another person's racket. And so I sit here at my laptop, trying to summon up affection for the indefatigable songster who sits on the peak of the roof mocking my dream of writing about something other than himself.