Icarus, Falling of Birds A Poem by Harry Thurston, Photography by Thaddeus Holownia

This heart-breaking beautiful poem tells the tragic story of the night of September 13th, 2013, when a flock of songbirds on their migratory journey south was attracted, ‘like moths to a flame’, to a hundred-foot-high flare at the Canaport Liquified Natural Gas Plant in Saint John, New Brunswick. Up to 10,000 birds of twenty-six species were killed by the heat and flames.

A myriad of birds
like moths to the flame
was whirled round
and round, like the coils
of Minos’s tail, to tell
all circles of Hell.

This 35-page poetry art book is a collaboration between poet-naturalist, Harry Thurston, and his photographer friend Thaddeus Holownia.

The long eco-poem is crafted as a sequence of twelve smaller poems, each one a complete poem on its own, but most powerful as one continuous swooping narrative.

Each of the smaller poems is amplified by one of Holownia’s archival photos on the facing page; the simple beauty and vulnerability of the tiny dead birds—burned and damaged and perpetually falling—a stark reminder of what was lost and what is at stake.

The poem is an ode to songbirds and Thurston scatters beautiful and insightful descriptions across the sequence—

Their bodies bright as their songs,
little flames, los canadelitas,
atop the bare branches
alight among the dark green

Thurston skillfully moves between the lyrical and the pragmatic, creating  unforgettable images and measures—

A confusion of drab little birds
            (each the weight of the ballpoint pen
                         with which the poet is writing this poem)

The poem also offers sonic cues throughout, so we not only see the tiny birds, we also hear them—

the only sound a faint lisping, tsp, tsp,
              billions just blips on the radar screen,
                            passing silhouettes to the moon-watchers.

The poem is a sweeping geography lesson of the great flight (and ultimately, of the planet)—

north from the Andes,
            the rainforests of the Americas,
                      the mangroves of the Caribbean,
a gathering, a funnelling
     across the Yucatan, the Gulf of Mexico,
         the Panhandle,
up the Mississippi,
        over endless fields of corn, wheat and soy,
               over the Appalachians,

It is also a poignant lesson in natural history as Thurston unspools descriptions of the birds’ habitants from around the world—

around the edges of swales and bogs
where fern, skunk cabbage, false Salomon’s seal
white baneberry and marsh marigold mingle

amid the fragrance of fallen pine needs
the dark foliage of the hemlock and spruces
in mosquito-infested wastes
amid Labrador tea
in the fern-scented woods

in the trillium-painted woods
in the lady’s-slippered woods
in the starflowered woods
in the wild-lilied woods

Thurston is equally skilled at describing the urban landscape, as with the opening description of the port city of St John —

Plumes from the pulp mill, the smell of sulphur—
here, the river runs backward, falling toward
the sea one hour, the land another.

An underlying theme of the poem is the inter-relationship between humans and birds, because, as Canadian biologist Bridget Stutchbury warns in the poem’s epigraph, “We have learned the hard way that when birds begin disappearing, we may be next.”

Holwnia references the quality of forgiveness in the opening dedication in memory of Gay Hansen, his partner who was part of the group of ornithologists who helped identify the thousands of birds killed in the flare. Holownia describes it as the most difficult task Hansen was ever asked to do. Despite the harsh reality of the loss, beauty and hope thread their way through the poem.

Three of the smaller poem offers vivid descriptions of the physical research Thurston and Holownia undertook as they examined the frozen bodies of the birds stored as legal evidence. Thurston takes us along as he recounts opening the door to darkness and—

I reach down into the freezer
full of burnt birds,
my arm, blue fingers,
like the great wing
of a bastard angel.

An important part of this story, told in the introduction rather than within the poem, is that Canaport LNG accepted full responsibility for the bird mortality in 2015 and was fined $750,000 under the Migratory Birds Convention Act and the Species at Risk Act.

The poem draws on mythology by using Icarus, one of the most famous tragic figures in Greek mythology, as title and metaphor. Like the tiny birds, Icarus, despite his father’s warning, flies too close to the flame—for him, this was the sun—causing his wings of wax and feathers to melt and send him crashing to a too-early death.

Night travellers
     a storm of angels
           ignored as Icarus by the sleepers below,

The tiny birds share Icarus’s fate, but more significantly, this classic myth is a cautionary tale of the dangers of overconfidence and human arrogance. As Icarus ignored his father’s advice, so do we ignore our impact on the biosphere. This poem, like all great tragedies, is a warning—

As the birds migrate between their burnt and clear-cut forests,
Headlong into our mountain towers transmitting
Soap operas and reality shows, our twittering banalities,
While the skyscrapers burn all night and, in the morning,
The birds lie on the plazas and pavements inert as the homeless.

Ultimately, this poem is a prayer, not only for the tiny birds, but also for the humans who engineer their fate—

O blameless burnt little birds
scattered on the ground, so that
the flame keepers wept,

images seared into their brains
on sleepless nights
on waking days.

The final small poem reads as visionary prayer imagining a Paradise where humans “tread lightly between the trunks”—

And unseen, the birds sing
behind the green veil of a new leaf,
each song a signature to the ear atuned
to the music, the beauty, all around.

Thurston and Holownia have taken an event terrible in its heedless destruction and turned it into a moving and beautiful meditation on the power of mindful ecology.

Harry Thurston is a poet, award-winning environmental journalist, and author of more than two dozen books of poetry and non-fiction. He lives on a salt marsh in Nova Scotia.

Thaddeus Holownia is emeritus professor of fine arts at Mount Allison University. His photographs have been exhibited and collected at museums throughout North America and Europe.

A French translation of this poem by Sonya Malaborza is also available.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Anchorage Press (Sept. 6 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 36 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1895488540
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1895488548

Catherine Walker (she/her) is an instructional designer and writer/editor living on the South Shore of Miꞌkmaꞌki (Nova Scotia). A founding member of Lunenburg's Little Books Collective, Catherine also walks down the street every second Thursday for Spot of Poetry Get Togethers. Whoever said poetry was a solitary pursuit?