by John Updike
A gull, up close,
looks surprisingly stuffed.
His fluffy chest seems filled
with an inexpensive taxidermist's material
rather lumpily inserted. The legs,
unbent, are childish crayon strokes--
too simple to be workable.
And even the feather-markings,
whose intricate symmetry is the usual glory of birds,
are in the gull slovenly,
as if God makes them too many
to make them very well.
Are they intelligent?
We imagine so, because they are ugly.
The sardonic one-eyed profile, slightly cross,
the narrow, ectomorphic head, badly combed,
the wide and nervous and well-muscled rump
all suggest deskwork: shipping rates
by day, Schopenhauer
by night, and endless coffee.
At that hour on the beach
when the flies begin biting in the renewed coolness
and the backsliding skin of the after-surf
reflects a pink shimmer before being blotted,
the gulls stand around in the dimpled sand
like those melancholy European crowds
that gather in cobbled public squares in the wake
of assassinations and invasions,
heads cocked to hear the latest radio reports.
It is also this hour when plump young couples
walk down to the water, bumping together,
and stand thigh-deep in the rhythmic glass.
Then they walk back toward the car,
tugging as if at a secret between them
but which neither quite knows--
walk capricious paths through the scattering gulls,
as in some mythologies
beautiful gods stroll unconcerned
among our mortal apprehensions.John Updike on "Seagulls":
My distinct memory is that I was pondering gulls while lying on Crane Beach in Ipswich when the first stanza came over me in a spasm of inspiration. Penless and paperless, I ran to the site of a recent beach fire and wrote in charcoal on a large piece of unburned driftwood. Then I cumbersomely carried my improvised tablet home. It must have been late in the beach season, and my final stanzas slow to ripen, for the poem's completion is dated early December.
Excerpted from On Wings of Song by J. D. McClatchy, ed.. Copyright © 2000 by J.D. McClatchy. Excerpted by permission of Everyman's Library, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.