Thursday, May 3, 2012

White Raven

"The White Raven," Yucca Valley, September 2008. Photo by Julianne Koza

There's a white raven here in the high desert. Among the local birders I've talked to, this raven is well known but hasn't been spotted for the past couple of years. Fortunately, wildlife photographer Julianne Koza has captured it for posterity. Many thanks to Julianne for letting me include her photo here.

Several people mentioned to me that they thought the white raven deserved a poem. I thought so, too, and in the process of writing it, I learned a few things about white ravens. First, they are not albinos, but rather the product of a genetic mutation. They often have blue eyes. They are rare but not unheard of, with sightings reported in many parts of the world.

They are also key players in many human legends. The Haida people of the Pacific Northwest tell how White Raven stole the sun, moon, stars, fire, and fresh water from Gray Eagle, who had hoarded all those things. White Raven hung the sun, moon, and stars in the sky and dropped fresh water to earth. He held a firebrand in his beak before dropping it to earth, too, and the smoke turned his feathers black. To the Haida, a White Raven is a "Spirit Raven."

In Hebrew folklore, a white raven was the first bird sent out by Noah from the ark to search for land. The raven did not come back in a timely manner, and was punished by being turned black and being forced to eat carrion forever.

There is even a white raven in Ovid's Metamorphoses, which is turned black by Apollo as a punishment for delivering a message from an unfaithful lover.

What's up with all this punishing? That's a question I ask in the poem.

White Raven

Spirit-bird, daughter of cloud and sky,
body of pure white, mirroring
a trace of blue, the father in your eye—

Body of rain, riding the wind,
rare bird, what is your place
in the unkindness of things?

Are you a prophet, in the flock
but not of it, the purity behind
the black night of the soul?

Or are you only a bird in midair,
calling on the downbeat, consumed
by the need to eat, fly, sleep?

You dream of swans and seagulls,
never having seen them, not knowing
what those dreams mean—

You, the original sinner, who stole
the sun, moon and stars from Gray Eagle,
who dropped fresh water and fire to earth—

You, the sacred messenger, who Noah
sent from the ark to find land,
and who did not return soon enough.

These stories are burdens that do not
concern you—tales made up
by spirits without wings

to explain the origin of blackness,
to blame an outside force
for their fate.

Uncontrolled, you remind us
of what has gone missing
in our lives—

When all the stories fall away,
we are left with the fact of you
or your absence.

I'll be reading this poem at the Red Arrow Gallery this Saturday, May 5, as part of our reading to celebrate "A Bird Black As the Sun: California Poets on Crows & Ravens." Other readers will include Enid Osborn, Jim Natal, Jeanette Clough, Ruth Nolan, and Noreen Lawlor. Plus an open mic. It all starts at 7 pm. Hope to see you there!