Have you ever had a very young child, a toddler, suddenly sit still as a stone, listen to you talk with rapt attention for more than a couple of seconds? What’s more, stare at your mouth with his slightly open as though that were the way to take in your speech?  The first time this happened with me and my grandson, he was barely four, and we were riding in the car with my son, his father, driving.  Koly had got tired of his toys and become restless. I  turned to him, smiled, and began reciting this poem by Emily Dickinson:

A Bird, came down the Walk —

He did not know I saw —

He bit an Angle Worm in halves

And ate the fellow, raw,

 

And then, he drank a Dew

From a convenient Grass —

And then hopped sidewise to the Wall

To let a Beetle pass

 

He glanced with rapid eyes, 

That hurried all abroad —

They looked like frightened Beads, I thought,

He stirred his Velvet Head.

 

Like one in danger, Cautious,

I offered him a Crumb,

And he unrolled his feathers,

And rowed him softer Home 

 

Than Oars divide the Ocean,

Too silver for a seam,

Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon,

Leap, plashless as they swim.

The story is itself breathtaking for its dramatization of what could have happened in an exciting few seconds for an adult out for a walk or sitting in a lawn chair.  It is also a delightful counterpoint to Dickinson’s many poems dealing with the deadly serious themes of heaven, hell, search for identity, loss, grief, hidden sorrow and so on.

I found in Koly’s ability to concentrate fully on the little drama, a seriousness in this poem, too. To the child it was another living thing, a bird, smaller than he, demonstrating what he may have feared: the ability to take action without the knowledge of the grownup.  A four-year-old’s embryonic concepts of independence, survival, courtesy and even fear have voice in the poem.

The little boy connected emotionally with the contrast between watching the bird and reaching out to offer a crumb; his sympathy was aroused by the speaker’s urge to participate in life as it unfolded in front of her.  I think my grandson was also aided in his journey to learn patience when the speaker expresses no frustration as the bird further demonstrates his place in nature by “unrolling his feathers.”  The splashless swim needed no explanation to this developing mind intent on a good story. 

Digest A Poem A Day — Accept What Comes Your Way

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