Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Bird
after Wallace Stevens
- Sampurna Chattarji


This black bird sits outside the window and caws.
Purple-black plumage, beak scimitar with sound.


It is looking at me looking at it.
It doubts my integrity.
It guards its invisible egg.
Its mate is away.
It is doubly vigilant.
Black bird, soul of the gathering storm.


Wife and son. The son has a paler neck, a redder mouth.
It demands attention and gets none.
The wife is broody, quiet. In her presence
the black bird that screamed at me
is almost calm. The son frets
at what growing up must mean and pecks
and stains brown bark white with indignant droppings.


Bye bye, black bird.

It took the fledgling a long time to trust the current
caused by his mother's leaving.


The air is black with birds.
Rooftop exodus.
Fear and the trembling of wings and washing lines.


Messenger of black tidings, bird.
Don't speak, for I know what you will say.


Rice balls and scraps of fish.
The black bird, when it was younger,
caught them mid-air, a bit of a show-off.
She spoke to it then, warned it to stay
outside her kitchen.
It listened, with cocked head.


Ancestors hide in that black bird's form.
Thirteen and one generations from which we are descended,
fish-and-rice-eaters, quick-tongued and somewhat peevish.
Trace the family tree on which it sits, one eye lit by heaven,
the other, by earth.


Regular of the rubbish dump, the black bird haunts the city.
Artists love it. Poets envy it.
Children wish it were dead.
No one is indifferent, until the day the screeching stops.


On the terrace, the wrath of one black bird drives the man
who came out for a breath of air back down the stairs.
He hasn't forgotten Hitchcock's Birds. He can never see them
sitting on a wire, millions of them, without shivering.


The koel I never see calls.
She is his opposite.
The air is a vacancy between them.
The black bird sharpens its beak.


'No bird has as black a heart,'
a woman once said to a boy
who never forgot it.
Today, he feels ready to use a knife
to find out if she spoke the truth.


He finds out,
and has nothing to crow about now.
Lifeless, the black bird
affirms what has always been his.

The rain falls.

Sampurna Chattarji is a poet, novelist and translator. The most recent of her ten books is Dirty Love (Penguin, 2013), a collection of short stories about Bombay/Mumbai. Both her novels, Rupture (2009) and Land of the Well (2012), are from HarperCollins. Her poetry books include Sight May Strike You Blind (Sahitya Akademi, 2007, 2008) and Absent Muses (Poetrywala, 2010). Anthology appearances include 60 Indian Poets (Penguin); The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets; The Literary Review India Issue; The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry. Sampurna was the 2012 Charles Wallace Writer-in-Residence from India at the University of Kent, Canterbury. http://sampurnachattarji.wordpress.com/