Sirens

pickerel, n. 1 ? A young pike; several smaller kinds of N. American pike
pickerel, n. 2 ? A small wading bird, esp. the dunlin, Calidris alpina

I see it clearly, as though I?d known it myself,
      the quick look of Jane in the poem by Roethke ?
that delicate elegy, for a student of his thrown
      from a horse. My favourite line was always her
sidelong pickerel smile. It flashes across her face
      and my mind?s current, that smile, as bright and fast
and shy as the silvery juvenile fish ? glimpsed,
      it vanishes, quick into murk and swaying weeds ?
a kink of green and bubbles all that?s left behind.

I was sure of this ? the dead girl?s vividness ?
      her smile unseated, as by a stumbling stride ?
till one rainy Cambridge evening, my umbrella
      bucking, I headed toward Magdalene to meet an
old friend. We ducked under The Pickerel?s
      painted sign, its coiled fish tilting; over a drink
our talk fell to Roethke, his pickerel smile, and
      I had one of those blurrings ? glitch, then focus ?
like at a put-off optician?s trip, when you realise

how long you?ve been seeing things wrongly.
     I?d never noticed: in every stanza after the first,
Jane is a bird: wren or sparrow, skittery pigeon.
     The wrong kind of pickerel! In my head, her
smile abruptly evolved: now the stretched beak
     of a wading bird ? a stint or purre ? swung
into profile. I saw anew the diffident stilts
     of the girl, her casting head, her gangly almost
grace, puttering away across a tarnished mirror

of estuary mud. In Homer, the Sirens are winged
      creatures: the Muses clipped them for their failure.
By the Renaissance, their feathers have switched
      for a mermaid?s scaly tail. In the emblem by Alciato
(printed Padua, 1618) the woodcut pictures a pair
      of chicken-footed maids, promising mantric truths
to a Ulysses slack at his mast. But the subscriptio
      denounces women, contra naturam, plied with hindparts
of fish: for lust brings with it many monsters.

Or take how Horace begins the Ars Poetica,
      ticking off poets who dare too much: mating savage
with tame, or snakes with birds, can only create such
      horrors, he says, as a comely waist that winds up
in a black and hideous fish. The pickerel-girl swims
      through my mind?s eye?s flummery like a game
of perspectives, a corrugated picture: fish one way
      fowl the other. Could it be that Roethke meant
the word?s strange doubleness? Neither father

nor lover. A tutor watches a girl click-to the door
      of his study with reverent care, one winter evening ?
and understands Horace on reining in fantasy.

from?Loop of Jade?(Chatto & WIndus, 2015) ? Sarah Howe 2015, used by permission of the author and the publisher

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