One night in Boston when the leaves had already gone red and yellow and brown and bare, one of the nighthawks screamed. The four of us—Giff, Nick, Paul, and I—had been living together for over a year and were drinking beer on the hot roof above the apartment on Glenville Ave. We’d come up the fire escape to watch the sunset and the nighthawks loop overhead in a tapered flight that delighted us—
Grey squadrons with the slashes white on wings
Cruising for bugs beneath the bellied cloud
—is how Howard Nemerov describes them. But I’d never heard one scream before.
At least it sounded like a scream, and I imagine now its mouth was open wide too. After it screamed it flew close to my face making the whizzing sound a truck makes when it roars by you on the road. The scream was not the usual, uncaged, harsh peent, that was for sure. The nighthawks we saw usually made alarming, nasal whistles. But this was a bright scream and then, just as suddenly, the nighthawk sizzled past us all again before taking a bat-like turn to flip over to the trees in Ringer Park across Allston Street. Around that time I was reading a lot of Juan Ramón Jiménez and loved his poem, “The Green Bird,” that in the W. S. Merwin translation I had goes—
I have come.
But I have left my lament
at the edge of the sea
I have come.
But I will be of use to you in nothing
Because it is my soul.
I have come.
But do not call me brother
because my soul is there
I told them all about the lines from Jiménez, and we talked about what we’d seen. Nick, who was dressed in khaki shorts, his straight hair covering his ears, said he could see its eyes looking at us and thought we must have done something wrong. But we’d never heard one scream before. A few nights earlier we’d counted thirty nighthawks overhead, the most we’d seen in one night. Paul offered the theory that our presence was hurting this one nighthawk. He expressed this with mock seriousness. And then he downed the rest of his beer. We’re not doing anything special, Giff said, lying on his back with his legs crossed. He had a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Giff was the birder among us.
We had moved to the edge of the deck now.
The deck was made of wooden pallets, the kind you see in warehouses. From where we were on the roof, we could see a line of parked cars below snaking north against the curb of Glenville Ave. We’d built the deck over a couple of days a few months earlier because the roof above 124 Glenville Ave.—flat with no railings—had a gray rubber surface that was blazing hot to stand on barefoot in the summers. Even more so we were concerned that some party-goer, drunk, high, or worse, would wander over to the edge of the roof and fall off three stories down to the pavement. We imagined the brutal headline: “Paralyzed Undergraduate” or “Coed Leaps To Death.” One afternoon Giff and I asked the check-out guy at Brookline Liquors if we could have the wooden pallets piled out back next to the dumpster. You can’t have them, he said as he rang up the beer. But if they go missing, I won’t go asking about it, will I?
“Let’s do some crime,” one of the guys who lived above us said as he drove us over in his black Chevy van a few nights later after Brookline Liquor’s had closed up. We hauled some two dozen or more pallets up the stairs to the roof and then set about filling in the gaps with found pieces of board wood, and then battened them all together to make a platform deck about the size of a handball court. One evening with a dozen friends over and sitting on the deck, Jeff Smith brought his bicycle up to the rooftop and began making circles and figure eights. When he wouldn’t get down, we ordered the entire party off the rooftop and left Jeff on his bike up there alone. I guess he stayed up on his bicycle alone for another few minutes and, he later told us, he only did that “until I felt sufficiently douchey enough to go downstairs.”
The nighthawk was back now directly above our heads, and it screamed again. I was confused by the spectacle. It didn’t seem to me the scream meant anything. But I took its call as a sign for something nonetheless, a thrilling or eccentric sort of sign. Maybe its meaning was erotic—I often had a predisposition to think mysterious things were erotic when I lived in Boston. Or, I thought, the scream just signaled the difference between shapes and words, like between the shape and meaning of bird and bard. The nighthawk kept rising and diving, a being within itself, like metaphor, that collapses or dies when you poke at it too much—“Now slowly closing like a dent in dough,” say Robert Frost.
We knew enough not to be hypnotized by the nighthawk but I couldn’t help wanting to reflect about it. I so wanted to trust strange occurrences, like the screaming nighthawk, as more than what they were. I wanted to know for sure—though I never could know—that signs like this one kept our lives from being debased. The screaming nighthawk, I wanted to believe, could provide profound insights about aspects of human life. It just could. And the words I might come up with about the experience must have value too. And the meanings behind those words were something to pursue even if no words would come of it at all. The nighthawk could never be what I might think it stood for—whatever that was even, I hadn’t a clue—I knew that. But I was still the beneficiary of it even if its meanings were in flux and the meanings were fleeting. I was in search of some substitute to stand in for the original experience, even though I couldn’t have described it like that that summer night on the rooftop above Glenville Ave. in Boston. We live in a moment, we have an experience, and we demand to understand what is happening. I believed that was true, just like a poem is the birth of something new, not an elegy of something dying, though it might include that. A poem is more than just its words just as the nighthawk screaming was more of—well, more of what I still wanted to know—than its voice.
Whenever I read Robert Frost’s “The Oven Bird” I think of the experience on the rooftop. The poem goes—
There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.
Again and again that night the nighthawk sizzled toward us with its long wings in a white blaze. With the other guys I had sat down on the deck now, and then we were all lying on our backs. I believe we were all watching the bird and the coming nights with a new obsessiveness.
“Nighthawks” is the ninth entry in a sequence of autobiographical portraits to be published on Poetry Wire on the subject of my beginnings as a writer.