The Mail from Tunis, Probably:
A Hummingbird Fable of Proximity and Distance


Italo Calvino left us Six Memos for the Millennium: Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, Multiplicity, and Consistency; these qualities of imagination will promote the health of the human spirit. On the principle that seven is the more mnemonic number (seven types of ambiguity, seven deadly sins, seven pillars of wisdom), I add a memo on “Depth.” I’d like to be lexically “consistent” with Calvino, but “profundity” seems too stony after his “lightness,” and doesn’t highlight the spatial quality I’m after, the ability to measure a relation between proximity and distance. Just as “lightness” is not necessarily shallow or transparent, so “depth” is not necessarily profound or murky. My memo is a call for renewed depth perception, then, a quality increasingly lost in our flat screen world, where everything is at once intangible and near at hand. When things are seen from far away they are often flattened out, psychologically as well as visually. Depth perception allows us to recognize the contours of distant things. It also allows us to imagine the strangeness in things we have brought near, which may well be a matter of survival as the world compresses. Poetry once had a job to do, bringing the distant near, making a little mirror to catch the big outdoors. But perspective has caved in; all is foreground, too much is near, or seems to be, the swarm of images crowding in on our attention. So if a favored aim of the arts is to bring things near, now the arts might perform that other essential function, restoring distances, recognizing the strange in the everyday, praising what escapes our grasp. It’s not a matter of restoring mysteries. Scientists have upgraded most mysteries to problems—so they say. But the sense of wonder remains an essential part of living, and depth perception guards against lazy approximation and ennui. Here science and poetry might align themselves to defeat the flattening forces of custom and culture, of media image and instant message. In the instruments of the fall we find our redemption. An image, then, may serve better than a treatise, as an example of proximate distance. Since the image I choose is a hackneyed one, it provides a case study of representation—how representation, in words or images, can either erode or restore our sense of depth in what is close by.

I. The riddle of the hummingbird
Take the hummingbird—take it as problem, and as emblem of solution, as cultural object, as natural wonder, and as metaphor of the active mind. As an object of new-age culture, the hummingbird is kitsch. It hangs in the mind like a gift-shop prism. In West Palm Beach they have banned feeders—the hummers have become a hazard. Ebay is an emporium of virtual birds: on brooches, earrings, pendants, on velvet pillows and bedspreads, on sweater patterns and embroidery kits. My cursor hovers over five hundred sites.  The national hummingbird club announces its annual picnic. A hummingbird haiku contest posts the winners. You can order hummingbird kachina dolls in seven colors. This electronic aviary grows wider and more populous by the week.

What hope does the actual ruby-throat have of keeping its distance from these virtual birds, not that it cares, specializing in nectar. Does it distinguish between the fuschia cup and the koolaid cylinder? (Perhaps not; yesterday one crashed into a red heart-decal my daughter had pasted to her bedroom window.) My mind, certainly, starves on sugar water and crashes on screens. A web site—“tiny poems for tiny birds”—feeds me the cloying line “a sunbeam giving the air a kiss” (Harry Kemp). But this failure to capture the contours of near distances is nothing new. I look in Audubon and find the disappointing “glittering garment of the rainbow,” the eerie coinage of the taxidermist. Czeslaw Miloscz’s Treatise on Poetry resuscitates only slightly with “a child’s top in the air. . .the beating heart of motion.” Science seems a better form of enchantment, its knowledge often making things less, not more familiar: the strange heart of the hummingbird, beating 1260 times per minute (second only to the shrew)—now there’s a glorious distance! (Imagine the maneuvers by which we measured this phenomenon.) The Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andreas understood the poetry in ornithology, translating a hummingbird treatise, Beija-flores into English.

Language doesn’t always flatten out reality, then. The unselfconscious naming of airborne things is poetry by accretion. All hummingbird enthusiasts love the catalogue of popular names for this most varied genus. Every treatise includes a list of flying jewels and exotic fruits to excite the tongue. You can almost set it to marimba music: ruby-topaz and amethyst woodstar, black-throated mango and frilled coquette, black-breasted plovercrest and fork-tailed woodnymph, hooded visorbearer and crimson topaz. We make hymns to their parts: stripe-breasted starthroat, black-eared fairy, white-vented violet-ear, bearded helmet-crests, violet-capped woodnymphs, rainbow-bearded thornbills, glittering-bellied emeralds, velvet-purple coronets, golden-bellied star-frontlets, booted racket-tails; we like them violet-crowned, buff-bellied, broad-billed, fiery-tailed, snow-crested, blue-throated, purple-throated, black-chinned. We have called them after poets, muses, and demons: Sappho and Calliope and Lucifer. Even the matter-of-fact names sound precious and otherworldly in foreign tongues—oiseau mouche (fly birds), pica flores (flower peckers), Watininikawahizenga (bird like a butterfly). Sickle bills and saw wings, hermits and plumeteers. Linnaeus, establishing the Latin title for the hummingbird, intended to base it on the Indian sounds, trochilus colibri (tiny bit of sky spirit), but by a slip of the pen or a careless copyist, as Virginia Holmgren tells it, our hummingbird became for all time “trochilus colubris,” Latin for little snake. The names by themselves carry the key to near distances. Only the English were interested in its noise, so much like the humble bee’s buzz. Hummingbirds know in singing not to sing: do not alarm us with your woodland hoots and whistles, they seem to warn. All that twitters covers up the real. Just hum and the words will come.

Emily Dickinson named the hummingbird by not naming it, sounding the riddle of proximate distances in the New England scene:

      A route of evanescence
      With a revolving Wheel—
      A Resonance of Emerald—
      A Rush of Cochineal—
      And every Blossom on the Bush
      Adjusts its tumbled Head—
      The mail from Tunis, probably,
      An easy Morning’s Ride—

Of course Dickinson was wrong. The mail in this case could not possibly be from Tunis. The hummer is a New World bird and, as the ruby-throat is Amherst’s only visitor, her mail must be from Mexico or Cuba. But Dickinson had her poet’s geography right, for the ruby throat, regular as the mail, brings news of Dido’s fire, of Carthage burning.  Bad at needlework, she jabbed the language and brought up a “rush of cochineal.” To make a fire, rub the senses together, mix metaphor. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”—the ruby glaze of the hummingbird only shows when it is tipped toward the sun, for it is not the true color of the feathers but their prismatic structure, tiny, bubbly glass shavings on black backing, that creates the glory.

II. Nature morte
“Little birds. . . so different from ours it is a marvel” remarked Christopher Columbus, flatly, in his journals. Such a marvel must be possessed! Leo X in the Vatican got word of this strange miracle from the New World and wanted a piece of it. “A preserved hummingbird skin arrived . . . sometime before 1516 and may have been among the trinkets and treasures sent to the pope in a gift chest from the King of Portugal in 1514,” reports bird watcher and folklorist Virginia Holmgren. But the ways of the hummingbird remained obscure. Raphael was just then designing a loggia for the Vatican full of bright birds and flowers.  When he read an explorer’s description of the little treasure he decided to include it, perched among almond branches, on Pilaster Eleven. Without accurate knowledge of its ways, Raphael left the poor thing to peck at berries with its needle beak, meant for wild orchid depths, not court embroidery.

In that earlier world, with ever-greater distances to conquer, art offered a way to keep things near and still. Indeed, the hummingbird makes an excellent still life, good enough to eat. Consider this description from James Lunden 1794: “the head, together with the feathers, is of the bigness of a meansized sweet cherry. . .the body together with the feathers, is scarce equal in bigness to a Spanish Olive. . . it makes its nest in the boughs of trees, of the bigness of an Holland schilling, and lays very white eggs: two for the most part, of an oval figure, not bigger than pease.” Old World society, it seems, longed for plumage. A Hugenot working in the American colonies observed that hummingbirds have become big business: “dressed and dried in the oven to sell later in England for as much as eight pounds sterling each.” It weighs “no more than an English sixpence” but is worth its weight in gold. At the heyday of New World export 3,000 skins of one species were shipped at a Brazilian port in one month; in 1888, 400,000 skins were auctioned. We are familiar with slaughter, but it astonishes in the retrospective distance. Our own era’s love of simulacra may be kinder to hummingbirds, but it still destroys the thing we long to possess.

Nature dies, in or out of human hands, but the hummingbird seems born to escape. The Portuguese, stunned by the amazing torpor of the hummingbird’s sleep, thought it was a tiny phoenix. Pajaros resucitados (“revived birds” Sahagun called them in 1550). The English, too, craved the spirit of air for their cabinets of curiosity. In 1670 the Honorable John Winthrop, Governor of Connecticut, sent back proof to naturalist Francis Willughby that the New World could be contained: 

I send you withal a little Box with a Curiosity in it which perhaps will be counted a trifle, yet ‘tis rarely to be met with even here. It is the curiously contrived Nest of a Humming Bird, so called from the humming noise it maketh whilst it flies. ‘Tis an exceeding little Bird, and only seen in summer, and mostly in Gardens, flying from flower to flower, sucking with its long Bill a sweet substance. There are in the same Nest two of that Bird’s Eggs, Whether they use to have more at once, I know not. I never saw but one of these Nests before; and that was sent over formerly, with some other Rarities, but the Vessel miscarrying, you received them not.

The hummingbird nest—that miraculous bower of dandelion fuzz and bud scales, spider silk and lichen-linen—attracts us by its intricate construction. The little artist of the thimble has made a home and we are intimates. . .“the finished product is a little 2-inch lump on top of the branch that looks,” ornithologist Calvin Simonds tells us, “for all the world like a partially decayed knot”; the fugitive fled. Our own hummingbird Houdini, the red throat, has escaped to the South where he joins his diverse race—in the tropics of Cuba, the high Andes, the rainforests of Brazil, or the plateaus of Mexico.  Solitary and non-monogamous, a lover of distances (migrating 600 miles or more) as well as unimagined intimacies with the smallest flower—unnested, restless in his art, he makes a home in motion. Willughby’s nest is a little like a metaphor, a souvenir of a thing that form can’t hold. But the eggs? Stillborn images that never take flight.

Representation often flattens out reality as it brings the distant near. Between 1849 and 1861, before the civil war brought us back to proximate disaster, John Gould produced a five-volume lithograph set of hummingbird images.  Selling many thousands, it made for him a nice little nest egg. But to any aficionado of joyas volardores, his flying jewels are fakes. Their colors especially disappoint; greens and blues conceived in the printer’s studio; reds hardly worthy of the robin; yellows that have never seen the sun; no transporting pinks or purples. Gould’s birds, pinned to the white page, seem unworthy of their rainbow names. Their flowers, suitable to the English garden, know nothing of the South’s outlandish scale. All of it virtual, as told to him by travelers and explorers. “He never set his foot on South American soil, the habitat of this large family of birds,” protested the painter Martin Johnson Heade (Dickinson’s near contemporary), by way of a challenge. Bored with his lifeless portraits of the wealthy, restless even in New England landscapes, retreating, perhaps, from his nation’s bloody struggle, and affronted certainly by Gould’s commercial fraud, the unnested Heade flew off in pursuit of his own “gems of Brazil.” The Boston Transcript, 1863, announced the project:  “It is his intention in Brazil to depict the richest and most brilliant of the hummingbird family—about which he is a great enthusiast—to prepare in London or Paris a large and elegant Album on those wonderful little creatures, got up in the highest style of art.  He is only fulfilling the dream of his boyhood in doing so.” He had heard of Darwin, had perhaps read these alluring words: “Brazilian scenery is nothing more nor less than a view in the Arabian nights, with the advantage of reality.”

Some representation restores depths—and heights: The “highest style of art” sent Heade clamoring up remote promontories in search of the gems in their natural setting, his brush jabbing the forest canopy to bring forth hues no northern eye had ever beheld. But how could the colors of his boyhood dreams reproduce in plates? Realism so fine had no nineteenth century resolution for the mass market. It was fit only for kings: Dom Pedro II of Brazil admired Heade’s painted original-oiseau mouche, but the Album to be printed in Europe was never realized.

Surely Heade must have asked himself, as Pascal did, as Elizabeth Bishop did, “is it lack of imagination that makes us come / to imagined places, not just stay at home?” Bishop traveled half the world around to find “the tiniest green hummingbird in the world,” knowing all the while that a tiny green thing in a jungle is invisible to the human eye, and no more fit for the suitcase than “one more folded sunset.” Having fed on honeydew, Heade, a self-described “monomaniac,” could not settle long in the meadows of Newburyport or the Thimble islands of New England. On to Nicaraugua, to Columbia, Panama, Jamaica, whatever the cost—not to possess this distance but be possessed by it, for thirty years. Heade invented a new kind of still life, not just “in situ” but opening out the spaces, giving distance to the proximate, combining still life intimacy with the deeps of landscape. Eschewing Emerson for Darwin, not self-admiring but intensely voyeuristic, he spied the birds as they delved the forms for which they were fitted and which were fitted for them by the slow mutations and exclusions. As he observed the tiny creatures probing, mating, fighting, he made a new kind of still life, miracle of prolonged hovering, anticipating Henry Miller’s imperative: “be still like the hummingbird.” Heade’s flowers seem dramatically, even pornographically large, but they are enlarged only by perspective, not by the engorging measure of man. There is something stormy in these images too, a sense of forbidden knowledge registered not just in the rainforest’s gathering clouds but in a gray-pink darkness in the ulterior spaces. Here was proximity and distance united, intimate and grand, here was imagination soaring over blue mountains, while falling into flowers, as D.H. Lawrence would do when he followed the blue Bavarian gentian from the ordinary world into Persephone’s caverns. Pursuing the improbable distances of the real, Heade eventually painted the impossible in convincing colors: a gathering in one circle of ten distinct hummingbird species, hovering around passion flowers in the Paradise of his imagination.

It was a paradise D.H. Lawrence also longed to recover by restoring the distances of time. Lawrence’s attraction to the pre-Columbian Americas brought the hummingbird to his notice. He claimed that we, modern rationalists, were looking at the hummingbird through the wrong end of the telescope of Time—“Luckily for us.” Lucky because the hummingbird, seen in its prehistoric scale, is no Ariel but a “jabbing, terrifying monster,” piercing the slow vegetable veins” of a soulless, heaving matter. Luckily for us also, Lawrence turned the telescope in his imagination, watched the hummingbird as he “flashed ahead of creation.” Of course Lawrence’s evolution narrative is wrong; the hummingbird was an insectivore that happened onto nectar and made a contract with the flowers.  And yet Lawrence got the cognitive distance right, the frisson of the primordial world. From “life . . .half inanimate” this “little bit of chipped off brilliance”—this gem from the veins of the earth—“went whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems” and has never ceased. It’s not the temporal distance we need to probe so much as cognitive distance that our processes of knowledge often gloss over. Johnsgard’s Hummingbirds of North America includes many charts and diagrams, the hummingbird’s architecture splayed, the ratio of his weight to his consumption graphed. These assembled facts lie flat on the page like Gould’s illustrations unless we turn the telescope in our imaginations, let the brilliance chip off and whiz in our thoughts, it will, indeed, terrify: The inhuman eloquence of the long, sticky, tongue; the strange heart proportionally largest among the warm-blooded animals—we will never time it to our languid pulses; the astounding wing, flapping 200 per second during courtship—while we are all wrist and elbow, the hummingbird zooms backwards, then dives at 95 kilometers per hour; the magnificent brain, more than four percent of body weight; the body weight, less than two paper clips; the hummingbird sleep, at a body temperature dropped 20 degrees centigrade, a sleep only plants and hummingbirds can rise from.  Can we put on his power with our knowledge?

III. Zincantecan rhythms

      Ch’un ch’un
      The hummingbird is good and big
      So that’s the way it is. . .

      I say they tell lies when they say that
      The hummingbird was little. (Mexican Indian folksong)

So goes a harvest song from Chiapas, a song full of conundrums that in the 1960s set the structural anthropologist, Eva Hunt, to work decoding it in the key of prehispanic transformational systems. Myth (as opposed to mere symbol without the force of experience or belief) is one way of uniting proximity and distance, as when the “blue-green hummingbird of the left,” little fire-swallower, little phoenix, reveals itself as the sun in its vernal equinox (from the South, the left) reveals itself as Huitzilopochliti, the blue warrior god (watch the sapphire hummingbirds charging and darting to the death to guard their cache), himself an aspect of the cosmic Tezcatlipoca, the “one legged” cyclonic power. The sun has become a warrior and died, becoming hummingbird, and now this hummingbird is large as the sun, large as the hawk, the incarnate spirit of the dead warrior.  Huitzitzil: “shining one with a weapon like a cactus thorn” (shining thornbill). Such valor, such glory—the streamers, the tufts, the feathery pomp of battle.  And the hummingbird-fire comes down, like the rain, to be reborn in the earth. Even the conquerors noticed it: Parjors resuscitados: “There are some birds in this country of the size of butterflies, with long beaks and brilliant plumage. . .Like the bees, they live on flowers and the dew which settles on them. And when the rainy season is over and the dry weather sets in, they fasten themselves to a tree by their beaks and soon die. But in the following season when the rains return, they come to life again” (Antonio Herrera 1601). Not nature morte, but still life. Yes, Henry Miller, you said it best: “be still like the hummingbird.”

D.H. Lawrence fell dangerously in love with this ancient Aztec hummingbird and wrote a novel about it called The Plumed Serpent. The traditional plumed serpent is Quetzalcoatl, wind god, brother of the hummingbird sun god, but one with it in the mythic kinship. (Did the plumed serpent misguide the hand to Linnaeus’ Latin error trochilus colubris—little snake?). Peeling off the spiritual pallor of the Christian god Lawrence revealed an underside, a modern fictional Huitzilopochtli by the name of Cipriano, aligned with another character, Ramon, a modern Roman controlling the frontier natives by encouraging human sacrifice.  We shudder, keeping our distance from the blood lust—Lawrence’s fiction has the whiff of fascism about it, this celebration of will. But his Kate Leslie loves Cipriano, becomes his priestess, and gives her inexhaustible flower to his sword. Lawrence yearned for a mind so spiritualized that the body could give itself over and over and still be virginal. He hated the weight of that market of skins, the dull plates of nature turned commodity, the subdivisions of the rational mind and the wastes of Christian piety, the whole enlightenment formula, the plunder that destroys and does not pollinate. 

But he mistook this myth for a modern dream, forgot its distance. The Indian song from Chiapas reminds us of our distance, reminds us that we cannot see as they saw, cannot really know the hummingbird as the sun:

      Then they recognized how it was,
      For none of us had seen it,
      We didn’t know what it was like.
      Yes, it says “ch’un ch’un” in the evening,
      But we didn’t know what size it was.
      But they saw how big it was.
      They saw that it was the same as, the same size as a hawk,
      Having to do with the father-mother
      “one-leg” as we call it.

There are lots of other myths, of course, myths of more convenient romance. In one, the bits of other birds—goldfinch, bluebird, scarlet tanager—are gathered up to make this multicolored splendor. In another, the hummingbird, boasting of his colors, is punished by the loss of its voice. Or the hummingbird is the ascendant soul of a star-crossed lover.  Or the restorer of sacred herbs (tobacco).  But the Aztec tales are the most powerful in restoring scale and distances, restoring fear and love for what is proximate and everyday; these tales are most worthy of the facts. The hummingbird is small and familiar, huge and strange, all at once; a thing ordinary and wondrous, nature that seems to die and come to life again. We need a vision of our own, but with the depth perception of this ancient fable.

IV. The mind is an enchanting thing
A radiant green dive, an iridescent hover (all hummingbirds are iridescent to some degree, hence figures for split sun), a whirr too deep to be menacing (the swatting instinct unactivated), and I’m all attention. What is attention? In the change of form, color, depth and movement a salience has formed, a little piece of chipped off brilliance has declared itself as foreground on my cortical map. My nerves set to work making meaning of the startle, binding information about the hum, the radiance, the scale, the depth, into a mental image, tracking its constant features as it displaces itself along the light (the glorious waves, the particles hitting the shore of the membrane, sending messengers inland with the news, until they ride the axons back again), testing it against the stored networks to announce “hummingbird” before this electro-chemical dance of input and output. (So the hummingbird, a construction of parts I have around in my mind, is only a remembered present.)  And where does reality end and imagination begin? The stimulus has not only activated my visual cortex, it has exhorted me to action (does all thinking have some action as its end?), to praise of the hummingbird, in this case, so that now I am in my study thinking of a hummingbird, the one hovering in my memory, and I flush him out, peruse him and send signals back downstream as if he were out there on the shore of light. Stephen Kosslyn has shown that a name summons an image by activating the visual cortex—a small image (a hummingbird) serves central vision—a large image (the garden, perhaps) activates peripheral parts of the network. “A mental image is simply a pattern that is loaded from long term memory rather than from the eyes,” says Stephen Pinker. And yet the resolution is so much weaker, like the hummingbird decal offered on my computer screen, like Gould’s prints. I can click it and make it flap, even throb like a cursor, but the iridescence fades, loses its “tang and pungency” as William James said, as Heade’s paintings did when he attempted commercial prints. Why is that? Why does experience matter? “Must we dream our dreams and have them too?” questions Elizabeth Bishop.  Perhaps we could implant the hummingbird formula into our memory store and forget about planting monara. And if seeing is always “seeing as,” if vision is metaphor, is my hummingbird then an illusion? 

      And then his Fairy Gig
      Reels in remoter atmospheres—
      And I rejoin my dog.

      And He and I, perplex us,
      If positive, ‘twere we—
      Or bore the Garden in the Brain
      This Curiosity—

      But He, the best Logician,
      Refers my clumsy eye—
      To just vibrating Blossoms!
      An Exquisite Reply!

Fact gives more to the imagination than the imagination gives to fact, wrote Henry James. Minds, like hummingbirds, love edge environments.  Of all the near distances the most absorbing is the mind itself. “The mind is an enchanting thing/” writes Marianne Moore, “like the glaze on a / karytid’s wing/ subdivided by sun/ till the nettings are legion.” Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, Multiplicity, Consistency . . . Depth; the hummingbird, which embodies them all, might as well be our emblem for millennial renewal.

The brain is a computer and the mind is an effect of the brain. “Not the ghost in the machine but the hum of the machinery,” it has been said.  Is it merely an effect? We scan, dye, or flay the brain, in search of the mind’s hum. We find 100,000 million neurons tufted with dendrites, trailing axon streamers sometimes three feet long. Our brain is a small thing, relative to our size, yet the mind is wider than the sky, spanning two hemispheres. The hummingbird idea whizzes over the vast rolling landscape of its grey folds. Can an old bird learn new tricks? A few years back a scientist opened thousands of gold finch brains to examine their songs in the flesh. (No wonder the hummingbird is mum.) He had taught these birds Brahms’ lullaby before he sacrificed them, proving that we can grow neurons in maturity.  We must pursue the godless causes, measure the synapses, and balance the chemical conversions. We must jab and jab in the Garden of the Brain, which we have dyed bright colors to show off its pathways, thrash through its trees, pursue its “sylvan aqueducts.” And at the end of the journey—will we find experience and its consort, imagination? Will we know the physical basis of each iota of awareness, all the combinations that unlock the mysteries of color and light and music and poetry? Will we then know everything there is to know about consciousness?  It is a long distance to this most proximate place, and the language of science, like the language of poetry, reaches into and restores its depth, as the hummingbird mind flies off into the unknown.



Bonnie Costello is Professor of English at Boston University and the author of many books and articles on modern poetry, including studies of Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop. Her most recent book, Planets on Tables: Poetry, Still Life and the Turning World was published by Cornell University Press in 2008. She is currently a fellow at the New York Public Library Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, where she is working on a book about the use of the first person plural. In addition to her scholarly work, Costello has published essays on travel and on visual art, as well as English translations of Italian poetry.


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