Ars poetica

We went to spot a trogon and I began to hum,
picking paces down a path greater than their sum.

Milky lime, the river, sometimes smoky jade;
in the brush, bromeliads; red orchids in the shade.

Cawing to the trogon as if we knew his sound,
we surely drove him farther into the dim background

where likenesses of birds flocked behind the trees
and flashes off the river flitted in the breeze.

At length we reached the ambit of a murmur
first confused. From hush rose up whispers, firmer

round each bend, until we knew a roaring
falls could best explain the din, though its pouring

as it filled the pool came to form a quiet cove,
a hollowed cell recessed within the tangle of the grove.

I looked up through the rainbow spray where
my creature should have been, emerald scarlet in the air,

thoughts of ruby green. The water’s plunge made the bluff
beside it soar, but no bird perched up in that rough.

Mine remained the rarest bird, one that’s never flown.
The echo of his dearth is for my ears alone.


Richard and Debbie were passionate about birdwatching, for which I never developed a taste. Could never get the names right.

On one of my several trips to Mexico in the early 80s, they took me on a long hike to Cascada las Brisas, a waterfall near Cuetzalan in the Sierra Norte de Puebla. There had been reports of a sighted trogon.

Our trip took us through a cloud forest and alongside a coursing stream up to the Falls themselves. It was a fabulous experience but I don’t have a trogan on the list of birds seen Debbie carefully prepared for me afterwards.

Two decades later I turned this expedition to allegorical purpose. The missing trogan became not only a poem but a poem about failing at poetry or, more generally, the failure of poetry.

This is paradoxical since “Ars poetica” is among my favourite poems of my own, and starts out with a simulacra couplet of meter and rhyme. Just listen:

We went to spot a trogan and I began to hum,
picking paces down a path greater than its sum ….

I have commented on the red/green motif here and elsewhere in my poetry in Red and Green All Over Again.