HornbillTockus flavirostrisWe know you at our campsites, your great moon-beakswinging like a bludgeon from your small, grey head,the crazy fruit of acacia trees, the bogey’s podswelled with the seed of the dirt you shuffle in.There isn’t any mouthpiece in the worldmore fitting to your cry of thorns and gravel,a stutter in your anguish. And then silence,as your ugliness settles over you like a shroud.But in the air you are the wind’s trapeze, the strokeof a brush on its canvas. Nothing flying comparesto your dip and ride, to the feather-tipped lunettein your flight’s dome. When we saw it first we knewthe gag was over, dumbstruck at the proofthat grace – the slow parabola you carvefrom the very air – can find its way from placeto place, alighting there, cast in the bone of your wing.
by Arthur Attwell, in Killing Time (UCT Writers, Snailpress, 2005)
art by Corrie Haffly
Arthur Attwell is a South African publisher and poet, and also a friend of more than twenty years. He was the first poet I knew in person, and his publication of a little poem in a collection at our university was the first time I bought a work of poetry. I only read two of the poems in that collection: Arthur’s, and one which caught my eye as I thumbed through it and paused to read. It said this:
You’re reading this
because it’s short.
I remember laughing out loud: at the ludicrousness that those three lines could be considered poetry, at the feeling of being busted, because the truth was I had, indeed, read it because it was short.
My mom bought me Arthur’s first published collection of poems, Killing Time, for my birthday ten years ago, and I was stunned to hold this volume written by someone I knew. You can read an excerpt from the collection here (and by the way, it’s well worth your time to scroll down to page 16 and read the poem for which the series is named)
I chose this one, however, because the African hornbill is a bird I’d often wondered about on trips to the South African game reserve: it really is ugly, and yet majestic in its own way. Like the warthog, it’s one of those creatures that makes me think anew about form and function, and how sometimes we see beauty in people when they’re at work, rather than stationary.