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In the late 1970s the poet William Everson, (1912-1994) also known as Brother Antoninus, witnessed a highly dramatic encounter between a cat and a Steller's jay in California, and later recounted it in an appealingly lyrical mock-heroic poem in which one can also feel his life-long devotion to the work of Robinson Jeffers. --  In the "translucent blue" of the "wild feathers" Everson saved as "numinous trophies" of the encounter, the "beat friar" (Everson was a member of the Dominican Order for almost two decades) saw an "iridescent message . . . from beyond the screen of Nature."[1]  --  Originally published in 1980, this poem's message continues to resonate.  --  It is also included in the posthumous three-volume collection of Everson's poems published by the Black Sparrow Press....

 


1.

JAY BREED
By William Everson

From THE MASKS OF DROUGHT
Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1980
Pages 19-23

All the young summer the jay breed prospered.
The new brood, fledged early and growing apace,
Took over the canyon, a stellar triumph.
Bright, black-crested, sporting the razor-sharp profile,
They probed every cranny.  Whatever accosted
Must pass inspection else suffer abuse.
Scolding, truculent, cunning, vindictive,
They strutted about the canyon, and we endured them.
Downstream by the meadow our creekside neighbors
Shot them with guns, then hung the skewed bodies in the apple trees
To scare off robbers.  Here, under the towering
Canopy of redwoods, we let them live
And suffer their gall.

                              And indeed their very abrasion
Bespeaks them:  after the the gloomy tree-sodden winter
That jaybird bravura fills a definite need.

I have, in fact, gone so far in complicity
As to scatter crumbs on an old stump to lure them in,
Swooping, blue iridescent streaks,
Angling through slant shafts of the sun
Between columned redwoods, their raucous bravado
My guiltful delight.

                          But the cats
Are not amused.  Skulking the yard they endure that umbrage
Nastily.  Dive-bombed from behind
They crouch flat-eared and bare their fangs.
Often they scan the sky, the trees, the hedging thickets,
Possessed of a throttled rage, a passion
Apparently hopeless, given the jays'
Treetop immunity, but nursed nonetheless,
Corrosive desire clenched to the heart
Against the long-deferred accounting, the Great Day
Of feline retribution.

                            Meantime,
The jays cursed back, and streaked in,
Jeering.

           Then early afternoon,
The hour lazy and bland, a stripling jay
Dropped down from the trees to pick off a cricket.
At ease in the grass, confident of his long legs
For quick takeoff, he speared his game
With nice precision.  Foiled in his beak
The hapless insect wriggled and strove.
Intrigued, the jay let it squirm,
Then flipped it aside, pounced, stabbed it twice,
Artfully toying.

                     But all unnoticed
In the wide summer day the black tom
Got his wits together.  Aslink under the hibachi stand
He inched stealthily forward, tail twitching.
Suddenly the jay sensed him:  one electric spring of those long legs
And he lit out, the cricket still foiling his beak.
Too late.  Too late.  Lightning unleashed, the black tom caught him
Full stretch in the rush, a foot off the ground and going away.
One terrified squawk sent the cricket spinning,
And bird and cat hit the grass together, a feathery tussle:
The end, the mad scrambling end and the clutched triumph,
Abrupt close of the long life-gamble.

                                                    Not yet.  Not yet.

Pressed under the paws the jay's head struggled out,
Screeching piteously.  The jay breed responded.
Converging from thicket and scrub,
From the tall stands of redwood and the streamside alders,
They closed in.  The long flight-angles
Planed down, not jockeying now for scattered crumbs
But swooping for life, the only life they know:
The perdurable breed.

                               Wheeling above the crouched pair
They danced like blue devils.
The black tom grinned up at them,
His neck craned, his white teeth
Gleaming behind stretched lips,
His eyes yellow fire.  Under his feet
The caught prey implored, piteously, the long lament,
The life-going.

                   That hullabaloo
Brought the cat tribe in from the listening woods.
First little Squeak, least of the litter,
Who snatched the prey from her brother's paws
Distracted by jaybirds.  But she, too, dawdled,
She, too, toyed with that pleading life,
Till her bigger sister, greedy minx,
Snatched it away, and with one clench of her jaw
Crushed the black-crested head.
Instantly all fell still, the fierce clamor hushed,
The yard deeply silent.  From twig and branch the jays looked down,
Stunned, shaken.  Then the parent bird
Gave the sharp tut-tut, abrupt signal of termination,
And they all took off.

                              The cats
Ignored what they caught, left the futile remains,
Small wing-flurry of the spent cyclone,
Scattered in the grass.  As for me,
Something within was held suspended,
The extravagant episode suddenly quenched,
Like a drench of ether splashed on my heart.
I picked up the disheveled, resplendent wings,
And stretched them to let the light fall through,
Translucent blue in the wild feathers.  Then the arrogant tail
That had flirted with death and not won.
And for final gesture the elegant claw
Crooked at the sky.

                            I took the numinous trophies
Inside the house to dry on a ledge.  Well-placed,
Their iridescent message glows in the room,
To reveal from beyond the screen of Nature
The life of God.

                      But what was the vibration
That trailed them through the rooms as I bore them in,
And clings yet to my hands, like mountain misery?
A speck of blood flecked my fingernail.
Tasting, I imagined it salt.

                                     But the moment was no more.

Outside, in the languid day, the black tom
Slunk beneath the hibachi stand and took up his post.
A touch of swagger, transmitted out of the fetch of the jay,
Invested his movements with auspicious pomp.
Oh, what animal cunning licked the feline lips,
Appeasement clean as a wing-bone whistle?
Reality reduced to a feather in the grass,
A plume in the fern?

                             Whatever death is
The jaybird learned it.  But the black tom
Demurs, coiled in contradiction, the infinite
Satisfaction of life.  Crouched on sheathed paws
He watches.  His yellow eyes, blank as the sun,
Ceaselessly scan the jayless sky,
And not blink.