Poetry

Chorus from "The Birds"

Derek Mahon

Aristophanes

O troubled people, frantic creatures of an hour,
swift generations, curious growths that flower
and fade in a brief stretch of time as if
you haven’t strength to live a longer life!
Dream shadows, listen to us, the sovereign birds,
students of the eternal whose wise words
can teach you everything there is to teach.
(Not even Pythagoras had our intuitive reach.)
Once there was night and chaos, empty space,
until an extraordinary event took place.
A shape formed in the darkness, an ovoid
laid by a loving spirit in the void;
love hatched the first birds and so life arose
with shiny wings and feathers, beaks and toes.
That’s when the earth began, the sea and sky
and the capricious gods who never die.
We warbled, chirped and squawked, filling the air
with our fresh voices, audible everywhere.
Born of love, we have the wings of love,
the wings of doves, to swoop down from above
and inspire lovers when they want a ride.
Just think of the great service we provide!
Robin and nightingale, owl, wren and plover,
we’re hugger-mugger with the human lover
who comes to the window, into the love nest
and snuggles up there to a stippled breast.
We mark the seasons, autumn, winter, spring.
Our vast migrations, on impatient wing,
remind you when to plough, to sow and reap,
when to pasture the herds and shear the sheep.
Muses, oracles, prophets, we supervise
your lives from our perspective in the skies.
Consider us your gods and we can promise you
longevity, world peace, increasing revenue,
plenty of stuff and enough fluff to choke
the most priapic till the day you croak.


Derek Mahon is a poet and translator. He is author of many collections, including Harbour Lights, Somewhere the Wave, Life on Earth, and An Autumn Wind. New Selected Poems was published in 2016, and last year he published the collection Against the Clock. He lives in Ireland.
Originally published:
April 1, 2019

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