Poetry Parnassus: Flamingo Watching (USA)

Poetry Parnassus is a project of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, hosted at the Southbank Centre in London. It runs from June 26 to July 1, and features 145 poets from around the world. Here is the Guardian’s interactive map, where you can click on a country and read its poem. I will be posting one a day until they’re done.

Flamingo Watching, by Kay Ryan (USA)

Wherever the flamingo goes,
she brings a city’s worth
of furbelows. She seems
unnatural by nature —
too vivid and peculiar
a structure to be pretty,
and flexible to the point
of oddity. Perched on
those legs, anything she does
seems like an act. Descending
on her egg or draping her head
along her back, she’s
too exact and sinuous
to convince an audience
she’s serious. The natural elect,
they think, would be less pink,
less able to relax their necks,
less flamboyant in general.
They privately expect that it’s some
poorly jointed bland grey animal
with mitts for hands
whom God protects.

• ‘Flamingo Watching’ from Flamingo Watching (Copper Beech Press 1994) copyright © 1994 Kay Ryan, by permission of the author.

A poem about the glorious, extravagant absurdity of pink flamingos, making a point also about American diversity. It works on both levels. We are entranced by her depiction of these extraordinary birds as physical animals, yet it’s almost impossible not to see them as a gay rights metaphor. Her language exposes the assumptions held by God-fearin’ folk – unnatural by nature – and the last 8 lines, starting with The natural elect…, are fairly explicit. There’s even a dig at Mitt Romney in there unless I’m much mistaken.

But even without the contemporary political resonance, this is a fine poem in celebration of otherness.

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