Today by Billy Collins #2

If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
 so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze
 
 that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house
 
and unlatch the door to the canary’s cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb…
 

I have been feeling unmoored for a week or so, partially because I haven’t got a new poem to soothingly sink myself into on a daily basis; a wisdom-built container of the mind, one that when I learn off by heart provides a sort of cognitive scaffolding for my harum-scarum head. I’ve been using old poems I’ve learnt as centering mantras, but once they become mantras, they also lose some of their shiny, just-gleaned divination, which I need on a daily basis in order not to feel like an earthbound inert. I need to be new on a day, which means finding some flow, some play. But something gets in the way.

I think it might be the canary in the cage. When I first read the poem, I thought that canary too cute. Oh come on Billy, this isn’t a Warner Brother’s cartoon, it’s a poem fer chrissake! But if you free associate around canaries (canary yellow, the islands, Norwich city football club), you eventually plummet 500 feet underground where you find a miner tending very carefully to his early warning system, a bird he no doubt grows quite fond of after a while, starts treating it a bit like a dog. And like all many mysteries of life this etymologically makes sense: for were these birdies not named after their birthplace, the Latin-derived Insula Canaria (the island of dogs) from whence 17th Century Spanish sailors travelled to these shores?

But I am also thinking about another canary, whistling, fluttering, sometimes shrieking in its cortical cage, that mineshaft much closer to home, at the base of the forebrain. The canary, AKA our limbic system, sit on its brainstem perch, from where it is able to communicate to the rest of the autonomic nervous system, the whole inner-electric landscape of the somatic self.

In my 3D brain app, the limbic system looks a bit like a sleeping turtle dove curled around a bright pink acorn than a canary, even though this part of the brain never ever sleeps.The pink acorn is its thalamus, that sensory switchboard through which everything heard, seen, touched, smelt gets processed. If I see an unfamiliar shape on the pavement, one of my thalamuses sends this information down two quite different paths towards the amygdala. On one path, the alarm goes off WHEEWAH-WHEEWAH-WHEEWAH-WHEEWAH even if nothing is really wrong. But just in case. Just. In. Case.

This route, relaying only a hazy outline, something rat-shaped perhaps, something out of the ordinary, takes 12 milliseconds or less. Depending on the initial perception, the body might be stirred into action here with a tip off to the hypothalamus, signalling threat via autonomic nerves to adrenal glands. Without the first fuzzy snapshot, we would be dead before the second route, travelling more conscientiously towards the amygdala via circuitous, but finely-tuned cortical paths, were able to assess the matter with due care.

If this thalamus-amygdala tripwire is being constantly triggered, you can forget enjoying the cool brick paths and garden bursting with peonies. For every rustle in the bush will be gleaned as a snake, a rat, a tiger (about 1,000 people were killed each year in India during the early 1900s) rather than a little orange-breasted robin foraging for worms. If we’re in a safe place, a good space, a spring day so perfect, we need to find a way to let the anxious canary out of its cage, out of our skulls. But how to do so when the fretful, feathered birdbrain is part of the fittings rather than a portable alarm system?

Read Billy Collins’ Today.

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