Grasp the Sparrow’s Tail

You want to fly with your feet
anchored to the ground, like

bamboo in the wind

where sparrows congregate,
they do not wait
long for another turn at the feeder,
are quick to flap chickadees
away from their seeds.

More like demons
than souls released from the bondage
of our bodies, these birds
flick their little tails,

You happily snatch one
down from its ecstasy in sky

and as you pull it back to live
on this earth again,
its heart turns to a terror
your fingers cannot bear to hold.

When you let go,
your feathered hands soar.


Questions and Answers

What inspired “Grasp the Sparrow’s Tail”?

“Grasp the Sparrow’s Tail” is part of a sequence called “Tai Chi Variations.” In the late 1990s, after my third book (Belonging) came out, I was in a slump. A good friend suggested I needed to do something completely different. As soon as she said that, I knew she was right, so I decided to take a Tai Chi class—something I’d been wanting to do for years. I had no intention of writing about Tai Chi per se—rather, I expected learning the practice would improve my ability to concentrate and focus, which in turn might help my writing process. But each time I learned the name of a pose, it inspired a poem.

What poetic techniques did you use in “Grasp the Sparrow’s Tail”?

I wanted the poems to delve into some general concepts of yin and yang, in particular the connections between opposites and the inter-relatedness of things. So in the overall sequence, the ancient Chinese practice of Tai Chi becomes an overarching metaphor for balancing extremes—those that surround us and those that lurk within. Meanwhile, in each individual poem, the pose in the title acts as a more specific metaphor.

The poems are written in free verse, but that doesn’t mean ignoring poetic craft. In “Grasp the Sparrow’s Tail,” for instance, I use a lot of assonance, consonance, and alliteration, which contribute to the poem’s music. These sounds are also linked to what’s being said, as in the onomatopoeic phrase “flick their little tails.” Just as important, though, is the use of rhythm, governed here not by a regular metre but by line breaks, which also underscore the shifts and movement in content. For example, in stanza two, the break between lines three and four is meant to encourage a dual reading of the word “long”—as indicating both time (emphasising the one-word line, “impatient”), and desire (i.e., longing).

This poem “Grasp the Sparrow’s Tail” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 169 (Summer 2001): 58.

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