“The Frigate Pelican”
You asked us to write about a person who lived a long time ago, i.e. the twenties or
thirties and even up to the sixties, who lived long enough to tell me about it.
My great aunt Marianne knew nothing about her time, the thirties, that she could pass on to me. That goes for the forties and fifties. I chose to write a paper about her for English class because she is a poet, but what can I say? When she wrote “The Frigate Pelican,” she was forty-seven years old and that was in 1934, but so much, robots – all of that – hadn’t happened yet. In the time when she lived, all there were was Brooklyn Dodgers and the Metropolitan Museum. That’s about all she ever paid attention to. As far as we know she never even had a date. She never had a child to give a name to, but she was asked to name a new model car. This was back in the time when there were a lot of weird cars. Here were her suggestions: Turcotinga, Mongoose Civique, Turtletop and Utopian Pastelogram. Get that. They finally called the car an Edsel.
I try not to deal with people who are poets who spend time in museums but you wanted to hear so that’s what I’m trying to do. My great aunt did travel to Florida one time and wrote about a huge bird people don’t often see called a frigate pelican. That’s what I have decided to base this paper on because it is such an interesting bird. The frigate pelican is still around now but not many people see it. My great aunt had been to a mangrove swamp. She did not know the fragile state we know about the climate now, but she saw way into the bird. It stole food from other birds while still in the air, not even bothering to stoop to the water and fish for itself. Fish were not scarce then either. (You could buy swordfish for twenty-one cents a pound back then, my mother says). The frigate pelican was a male according to my aunt and she herself worked for a difficult male at The Dial. (That’s a journal they had back then). Some of his gender and majesty slid into this bird who had qualities she didn’t like. So did Handel the composer she did like who, according to her poem, would have been pushed into being a lawyer or civil servant instead of being this man whose music we hear every Christmas.
Handel had to play the harpsichord in secret but ‘was never known to have fallen in love’. Why did she put that in there? Handel, she said, hid in his art as the frigate bird hid in his speed and skill at flying. And besides putting in Handel she put in – the poem is really long – in one version, single spaced, it is four pages with lots of lines crossed out – the frigate pelican was not like the steady swan who carried Hansel and Gretel across the stream; he would not know Hansel from Gretel, or even care.
As impassioned Handel –
meant for a lawyer and a masculine German domestic
career- clandestinely studied the harpsichord
and never was known to have fallen in love,
the unconfiding frigate-bird hides
in the height and in the majestic
display of his art.
He doesn’t bother doing right or wrong either for she says the frigate bird believes, “If I do well I am blessed whether anybody knows or not and if I do ill I am cursed.” She got that out of some old sermon. Her grandfather was a Presbyterian minister.
Now I must tell you that my great-aunt Marianne, when I knew her, lived in an apartment on West 9th Street. There’s a picture of her in the living room with a baby elephant and with a parakeet, and a red dragon on her fireplace.
The frigate bird occupies a world in which armadillos and jaguars and fer-de-lance, which is a very poisonous snake, and mongooses all live, the way things were at the beginning and how they still are in some places. And the frigate pelican takes it so for granted and is so facile about the way he flies and does everything, that he, the frigate pelican, wastes the moon.
That’s my great aunt. We may be carpenters and petty government employees but she writes about frigate birds who never go to church or learn our language, and there aren’t enough words for how aloof he is. “I have long been curious about the world before fishes.” I myself never thought of that. Before fishes? The frigate pelican is not really a pelican either. He is sometimes called a hurricane-bird or a storm omen. “A kind of superlative swallow.”
Why does my great aunt interest me? Have you ever thought how hard it might be to write poems in so perfect a way that just a description of an animal brings to light the strange old world, or new world: a pig-gaited armadillo, a jaguar fighting a crocodile, sharp-shinned hawks and peacock-freckled small cats and the terrible fer-de lance?
I went from thinking she was an odd person to being amazed at how wide her attention ranged considering that she always lived in an apartment. My mother and dad took me to visit my great aunt one Sunday and I’ll never forget it. We met her under the clock at Grand Central Station. She was frail looking and wore a black hat. We folded her into a taxi to 9th Street. She had a book from the library about the boyhood home of Columbus in Genoa and a sea-serpent in the Sea-of-Darkness. She wanted to show me something so she rummaged around and drew out a notebook on which every page was covered with tiny writings. There were forceful lines drawn through these tiny writings that covered every inch. She found at last a blank page and began to sketch a sea serpent. On the bottom she wrote: “The Sea-of-Darkness,” as if that were something no one takes for granted, something of unknown color to everyone living everywhere in this immense real place. Then she ripped it out and gave it to me.
We got to the apartment. It was a room with two sofas and two chairs and a fireplace. Nearby was a table and desk chair. I sat down and she brought me some something. “Here is an elephant hair bracelet,” she said triumphantly. I was impressed. Then feeling I was taken care of, she turned to my mother and father. “The exhibition of ceramics at the Brooklyn Museum is our one adventure so far,” she told them when they asked what she had been doing. She used ‘our’ out of habit because she used to live with her mother until she died. “All we’ve been doing is the book review for The Nation, and the eagle that I was working at before you came.” She motioned toward the desk. My dad said he was interested in what she was doing. She told him about Captain John Smith’s description of New England. “I am so curious about that time, particularly the journal parts itemizing the edible and other fishes that were to be found on the coast,” she told us. At ten I knew about Captain John Smith a little.
“There is a game we can play,” says my dad. “Where’s the octopus?”
I know that an octopus is a cephalopod which is a mollusk. They have pigmented organs in their skin to camouflage themselves because they are a mollusk without a shell otherwise they would get eaten because they are yummy.
I look at my dad and see he’s talking to me. “How do they keep from being eaten,” he says? Then he answers his own question.
“Camouflage! They can change their skin to match whatever they are next to.”
“What do they do when they’re sleeping,” I ask?
“We’re not sure they sleep,” Marianne Moore says, I think, happily.
My dad gets excited about it. “Isn’t that incredible? Camouflage yourself. Like your aunt is doing with that hat.”
“Bob,” my mother says.
“They can simply disappear,” he goes on.
“Can we try to trick them? Like put them against a black and white checker board?”
“We can pay attention to which colors they attune to. They are perfectly adapted to a life without a shell,” she says. “I sometimes think, though, about certain things, mollusks, people, that without one particular fault they would be without the means of existence.
I think now: Did she mean the frigate pelican? His penchant for stealing fish?
My great aunt knew how to describe the frigate pelican and then began to think how to end the poem. She tried more than three times, even bringing back the python who “crushes to powder”. It is just plain confusing to show the differences in how she ended that poem. If she ended it with “crushed to powder” it has great suddenness. She finally ended it with a rhyme: “theirs are somber/quills for so wide and lightboned a bird/ as the frigate pelican/ of the Caribbean.”
I wonder. Do people still contend with their bosses and write a poem about an aloof bird like my great aunt who never fell in love, and so found a composer like Handel also to write about? By the way, her cleaning lady said she did fall in love once; that’s never been made public. That’s private with our family. And I don’t know where to reach that cleaning lady. My favorite line is still, and I think of it every time I look up at the sky, “He wastes the moon.”
Rebecca Newth was born and brought up in Lansing, Michigan (1940-), educated at Michigan State University, married John Harrison a librarian who was employed first at Harvard and then at Yale and finally U. of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Rebecca taught creative writing for many years and at first wrote only poetry but began to write also fiction and children’s books. Eventually, she completed a checklist of books published by New Directions which her husband, now deceased, had begun. In 1995 she established a publishing company, Will Hall Books, to further literacy and the arts, and in 2006 the John Harrison Opera Foundation, a non-profit organization to promote opera in Northwest Arkansas. She is not a member of Marianne Moore’s family.