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Bill Maxwell

Flamingos take wing off the page

Kay Ryan, 62, is the nation's new poet laureate, the 16th.

I discovered her serendipitously in 1996 or 1997, while browsing books on a discount table at Bayboro Books on the campus of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

The book, Flamingo Watching, caught my eye. The day before, I had been kayaking in Fort De Soto Park and had wondered what had happened to the flocks of radiantly pink and red flamingos I used to see in Florida. In the back of my mind, as I weighed the book's title and recalled my experience at Fort De Soto, I could hear my mother's voice: "Everything for a reason."

Being a native Floridian and a columnist always looking for interesting topics, I thought I had found a book, perhaps with colorful photographs, unusual facts and memorable anecdotes, about one of our beautiful wading birds.

To my surprise, however, Flamingo Watching was a thin collection of poems. As a former literature teacher, I assumed the book was named for a special poem in the collection. Sure enough, I found the poem titled Flamingo Watching in the table of contents. It began:

Wherever the flamingo goes,

she brings a city's worth

of furbelows.

I stopped reading. I was stumped. I had never seen the word "furbelows." What was a furbelow? As a teacher, I knew to never continue reading if you don't know a word or can't apprehend its meaning in context. Not having a dictionary on me, I asked the clerk, a young woman, if I could use the Webster's on her desk.

After finding the definition of furbelow, "a flounce or ruffle, a showy, useless decoration or elaboration," I was instantly hooked on the poem. What a clever use of furbelow, a word that was onomatopoetically accurate and infinitely suggestive. I continued to read:

she seems

unnatural by nature

too vivid and peculiar

a structure to be pretty,

and flexible to the point

of oddity. Perched on

those legs, anything she does

seems like an act. Descending

on her egg or draping her head

along her back, she's

too exact and sinuous

to convince an audience

she's serious. The natural elect,

they think, would be less pink,

less able to relax their necks,

less flamboyant in general.

They privately expect that it's some

poorly jointed bland grey animal

with mitts for hands

whom God protects.

None of the real flamingos I used to watch in Florida seemed as real as the one Ryan had described with such mischievous wordplay. The imagery — sparse, incongruous and somehow perfectly logical and sensible — convinced me that I would never see a flamingo in the same way. I knew, too, that the best photographer could never match Ryan's ethereality.

I read the poem again, this time wondering why Ryan had described the flamingo as a "she." Surely, there are male flamingos. I sensed that furbelows felt inappropriate for a "he." I rejected the image of a male flouncing and ruffling.

Obviously, I had no idea if the author had intended such a reaction from the reader. I knew nothing of the poem's authorial intent. Still, Ryan had lulled me into the poetic moment, reassuring me that I had touched the essence of the flamingo.

Flamingo Watching, with its spare language and big intellectual leaps, made me feel inadequate. I realized I hadn't listened to Miss Gloria Bonaparte, my high school English teacher so long ago who tried to teach me how to "really read a poem."

When I learned last week that Kay Ryan had been named the new poet laureate, I reread every poem in Flamingo Watching. Each poem was brand new, each offering new insights and touching, inciting emotions, which I believe is the raison d'etre of this special genre.

Flamingos take wing off the page 07/19/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 23, 2008 6:25pm]

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