The twenty-fifth of March, 2011: augurs and understood relations

From Charles Causley‘s ‘Magpie’:

‘Good morning, Mr Magpie. How’s your wife

Today?’ I say. Spit on the risky air

Three times. The domino-coloured bird skips off

Through the lodgepole pines, dry leaves of aspen poplar

Crisping the path.

The sun swims down the altered mountain; roughs

A gold line round your head. A wail of box-

Cars threads the valley as I try to scrape

My hand of blood, watching the magpie’s track.

He struts in the dust. Bullies a whisky jack.

I’ve missed out two middle stanzas for space reasons; scrape my hand of blood continues an allusion to Macbeth (‘Magot pies/Macbeth called them: they point out murderers…’ – referencing Macbeth iii IV, ‘Augurs and understood relations have/By maggot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth/The secret’st man of blood’).

Causley was as Cornish as a chough, but the bullied whisky jack (from the Cree Wesakachak) places us in Canada, presumably during Causley’s tenure at the Banff Centre for Continuing Education in Alberta. By the daintiest of ornithological distinctions, this would make Causley’s bird a Black-billed Magpie (it would take a better observer than me, though, to tell it from the two Yorkshire birds just now gathering nesting bumf from the gutter across the street beyond my window).

Pedantic, all this, I suppose, but, as I’ve said before, I follow Nabokov – who taught his Cornell students, among other things, the entomology of the beetle into which Gregor Samsa transformed (‘it was a domed beetle, not the flat cockroach of sloppy translators’) – whenever I can. ‘I believe in stressing the specific detail,’ he said. ‘The general ideas can take care of themselves.’

Idiots writing in one of the UK’s many idiotic newspapers this morning (I won’t link to it, if that’s all right) would like to see the magpie culled. I wouldn’t. That’s all.


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