Still Life with Starlings and Man

by Sean Hill

“ … But since they shipped us across the water
it’s as if I should be grateful I’m imported … ”
                                        “Musica Negra (Black Music)”

Every composition has elements,
                                        and so my driving
                           up to the ATM at the Wells
                                        Fargo off Paul Bunyan Drive
                           and finding a mother
             European starling and her
two fledglings on the few yards
             of grass between me and Paul Bunyan
                           Drive makes us,
             to me, some kind
of composition. She forages
             to feed them, and they watch
                                        and imitate, the way
             a lot of learning takes place,
                                                     picking up bits
                                        of litter with their mouths
                           to see what’s actually
             edible, one looks of innocence
                                        with a candy wrapper in its bill
                           before dropping it to accept
               food from mother, rictus
               at her approach,
               that instinctual gape,
and since I’ve initiated
             the transaction, the ATM,
                           having accepted
             my card, beeps at me
                           for more attention
and I peck my PIN and can’t
                           help watching
                                        the starlings.
                           What are they doing
             there? I remember their
                           ancestors were brought
to America for some
                           purpose like mine.

Schieffelin imported 60 in 1890             
brought them to Central              
Park to be released, not quite              
manumitted, though              
it’s from the Latin for              
to send forth from             

                                                            the hand the way I
                                                            Noah sent the raven
                                                            and the dove out into
                                                            the world
                                                            made new.

Eugene Schieffelin,
a member of the American
Acclimatization Society,
sought to better this country
by bringing over
bits of Britannia, in his case
specifically all the birds
mentioned in all the works
of Shakespeare. The work of such a

                           society runs counter
                           to my sense of things. I want
                           to keep this North Star State,
                           this Land of Ten Thousand
                           Lakes inclement so I’ll have
                           a home to yearn for.

But with “starling” uttered only once
in all of Shakespeare’s words,
Schieffelin’s starlings’ progeny proliferated
on this continent immortalizing
him only a little, not like the Bard
whose words fly and brighten

             or blacken the sky. Today these fledglings’
                                        bills gape and that wedge of air,
             the absence they wait to have filled,
                                                                    like the piece of cheese missing from
                                                     the wheel in a Dutch still life, a table
                                                                    and banquet piece, with pheasant
                                        and roemers—I see it as if it has to be,
             though I can’t be sure
I’ve seen it—but it’s startling.

                           Those importers, seeking to improve
             this land, had other projects. The ring-necked pheasant
                           with its red eye patch surrounded
             by a glinting field of green deeper than kudzu
                           back home, which threatens
             virid oblivion to the landscape—groves,
                           gullies, old buildings, all gone
             under a blanket of kudzu like snow
                           here in the still months, a dreamer’s
             topiary garden in the giant land of my
                           childhood. I’m always Jack hoping
             for a happy ending the way Noah
                           hoped when he sent forth the dove a second
             time for news of the world
                           and Schieffelin when he sent forth starlings
             into the New World to make it over, to make
                           it Old and happily ever after.

             Nostalgia’s a small act
                           of thievery from the here and now
             and even the Geographic Cure can’t
                           rehabilitate us, won’t heal us, and here we are
             marooned on subtle shores, deserted
                           for our crime—leaving home. Here if folks
             are lucky and have lined their nests properly
                           they grow into snowbirds and come fall
             migrate to warmer climes.
                           They follow the flight of geese, a skein

                                                                                                         the same as the word for a hank
                                                                                          of yarn like a story spun, woven
                                                                           like weft thread with a shuttle over
                                                            and under the warp, undulating
                                             the way vessels on waves do
                              carrying cargo to and fro over
               the ocean to weave us together.
The flock’s formation, a wedge,
               pointing south, where the wedge
                              and maul wait behind the house
                                             for my father or me, when I arrive,
                                                            to rend wood, that is cleave, the same
                                                                           as the word when breathed that holds
                                                                                          fast as we do in our absence, one
                                                                                                         from the other. The maul’s head
                              kept in place a by small wedge
               forced into a smaller space.
Geese alternate wingbeats,
               passing back lift, to buoy
                              each other on their long journey.

               I wonder what moves a murmuration
                                        of starlings spilling like sheets billowing on
               clotheslines or water tripping on stones in gullies
                                        after rain or the grain of the palm of Dad’s hand and wood
               in the ark Noah built or words spilt from person
                                        to person like the chatter of a flock of starlings
               before they light out on their flight roiling
                                        like the heart of a Maroon dreaming she’s
               in a barracoon again before waking to the green
                                        of the forest in the mountains and in that forest

                                        the tint of US legal tender spit from the ATM,
               regurgitated currency, 20’s stacked like the 20 Africans
                                                                        a Dutch ship brought

                                                            to Jamestown in 1619—traded them
                                        for provisions, one year before the Mayflower;
                                                            by 1817 the American
                                        Colonization Society was founded
                                                            to send surplus negroes, that is free
                                        Blacks, to Africa—to Liberia,
                                                            a place where a Black man could realize
                                        his potential, a solution
                                                            for the free Black problem in
                                        the United States—a white

                                                                        The Dutch boat that brought
                                                            those Africans,
                                                                                                         a small drop in the swell
                                             of mercantilism
                                                                                          evidenced by the market
                                             for still lifes
                                                                                          among the burgeoning middle class
                                             of 17th century Holland.
                                                                                                         Still lifes with roemers
                                             of waldglas,
                                                                                          wide wineglasses with decorative
                                                                                          dollops of glass
                                             pressed into their thick stems, for greasy fingers to grip
                                             for folks to sip wine at feast tables if these roemers
                                             weren’t in still lifes
                                                                                                         in which you can see the way light
                                             lingers in wine and glass
                                                                                                         and surface holds more
                                             than brushstrokes.
                                                                                                         In this particular banquet
                                             piece, Still Life with Oysters and Grapes
                                             by Jan Davidsz de Heem, he has brushed
                                             the way light plays
                                                                                                         on the slick of oysters
                                             and the bloom of grapes,
                                                                                                         that delicate grey
                                             powdery matter that fogs their skin; he’s
                                             rendered these globes variegated
                                             with hues from green to gold to blue and red
                                             hanging off the table;
                                                                                                         the oysters
                                             slide off the silver charger, and
                                             caterpillars crawl and butterflies light
                                             on the leaves
                                                                                          of vines hanging
                                             onto the grapes and
                                                                                                         the leafy and slight branch
                                             clinging to the orange, because the branch
                                             is not clinging to a tree,
                                                                                                         in a candlestick
                                             (or maybe it’s a salt cellar)
                                                                                                         shining. The artist
                                             found the reds of the hummingbird’s gorget
                                                            that I saw at the flowers—forsythia or jasmine,
                                             no, fuchsia—outside Lauren’s mother’s
                                                            kitchen window (Ginny identified it as
                                             an Anna’s hummingbird) depending
                                                            on the cant of its head, depending
                                             on the way the flower’s cocked,
                                                            rapidly roving the range of reds—scarlet,

                                                                           crimson, vermillion, maroon neckerchief
                                                                           on the range or a top-shelf harlot’s
                                                                           corset or burlesque dancers’
                                                                           garter driven by hunger and
                                                                           commerce, see red, red in tooth
                                                                           and claw, cerise, cochineal,
                                                                           damask, sanguine, carmine,
                                                                           fulvous, rubicund, rubescent, titian,

                                                            red Japanese lady beetle red; those
               beetles were brought from Japan to eat
                              aphids in pecan groves and they invade our house
               in the fall collecting in the corners
                              of the ceiling. I envy them their footing,
               mine slipping, grounded in the South
                              where kudzu was brought from Japan
               to prevent erosion. My ranging

                              tendencies reach like kudzu tendrils.
                                             That Anna’s hummingbird and Jan de Heems
                              painting remind me of extraordinary
                                             rendition—to be taken away suddenly,
                              transported—an old tradition
                                             fashionable again in recent times,
                              funny how things come back.

               The receipt, this wisp,
                                             this record from the machine will mark
an end and release me
                              to the day as the starlings carry on.

Published on June 10, 2020

First published in Harvard Review 44