Green Birds of Your Youth
To A Daughter with Artistic Talent
I know why, getting up in the cold dawn
you paint cold yellow houses
and silver trees. Look at those green birds,
almost real, and that lonely child looking
at those houses and trees.
You paint (the best way) without reasoning,
to see what you feel, and green birds
are what a child sees.
Some gifts are not given: you
are delivered to them,
bound by chains of nerves and genes
stronger than iron or steel, although
unseen. You have painted every day
for as long as I can remember
and you will be painting still
when you read this, some cold
and distant December when the child
is old and trees no longer silver
but black fingers scratching a grey sky.
And you never know why (I was lying
when I said I knew).
You never know the force that drives you wild
to paint that sky, that bird flying,
and is never satisfied today
but maybe tomorrow
when the sky is a surreal sea
in which you drown...
I tell you this with love and pride
and sorrow my artist child
(while the birds change from green to blue to brown).
I love this poem, even though it ends with a sense of loss. Meinke envisions the girl growing up and losing her childlike faith and wild abandon. The fantastical green birds change to a more subdued blue, and finally to a common brown.
Why do green birds sound so outrageous? Maybe it's because those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere don't see a lot of green birds. Perhaps we picture sparrows and robins when we think of birds. But green birds exist! Some parrots are vivid shades of green. Even the more common male mallard duck has a brilliantly metallic green head. No, green birds are neither impossible nor improbable. Green birds are real. As are red, blue, and yellow birds.
So what is Meinke getting at?
All too often, the artist that lives within us fades away as we age, consumed by responsibilities, self-consciousness, and well-meaning —- as well as ill-tempered —- adults. We let fear, social propriety, and the search for perfection stand between us and our natural desire to create.
Although the poem ends with sorrow, I take it as a cautionary tale and a reminder that it doesn't have to be this way. The gift of creation -— whatever form it takes -— is an enigmatic present. It is a gift that is given to us, but also one that we are delivered to by way of our choices. Like a muscle, our creativity strengthens with use and atrophies with neglect. Creativity is like a language: the more we use it, the more we can understand and the more we can say with it. Like the ideas of faith and love, it is simultaneously an intimate and elusive entity.
What are the green birds of your youth?