Minnesota Poetry: Joe Paddock’s “Mass Extinction”

Joe Paddock’s collection of poetry “Dark Dreaming, Global Dimming” focuses on both birds, and the fate of our environment, and the many instances in which the two are interlinked. A native of Litchfield, Minnesota, he and his wife now live in the same house where he grew up. Years ago he served as “poet in residence” for MPR’s Worthington station. I chose the poem “Mass Extinction” both for its bittersweet tone and for the fact it refers to a public radio reporter as “cruel” (I love it!). Upon doing a little research, I found out there’s more to this story. Read the poem, and then keep reading to find out what I learned.

Mass Extinction

Earth is currently losing something on the order of 30,000 species per year – some three species per hour.

And maybe 15 years ago,

blurry now in memory, the story

on public radio, in Hawaii,

of a last bird of its kind – I can’t

remember its name –

had been discovered, and

the reporter and guide,

were listening to, recording

its song. I do remember clearly

the full richness of its warble,

somehow tired and forelorn, a song

that continues in me, sounding

down through the years,

only in me. The bird, the last

of its species, a male, lost

in the hormonal fires

of his breeding season, lonely,

singing to call in a mate, one

that didn’t exist, that wasn’t,

and he sang and he sang, and cruel,

the reporter and biologist,

then played for the longing bird,

a recording, an echo

from out of the past,

of a full-throated female response,

and O! how the male bird then burst

into glorious song!

– “Mass Extinction,” by Joe Paddock, as it appears in his book Dark Dreaming, Global Dimming published by Red Dragonfly Press. Reprinted here with permission from the publisher.

So when I read this poem, I immediately recognized that this must have been one of the stories Alex Chadwick reported back when NPR and National Geographic were partnering for their series “Radio Expeditions.” Sure enough, I quickly found the story Paddock must have been thinking of when he wrote his poem. But look at the story synopsis:

In the latest National Geographic Radio Expedition, NPR’s Alex Chadwick reports on an extremely rare bird species in Hawaii. The Po’ouli can live only in the most remote areas of the islands. Scientists have found THREE birds…two females and one male. Conservationists plan to either mate the birds in captivity, or bring them together in the wild and hoping the birds form a mating pair.

Momentarily I rejoiced, but I should have known better. A search of the phrase “Po’Ouli bird” quickly told me that the birds never reproduced, and as of 2004 are believed to be extinct.

Does the added information add to or take away from Paddock’s poem? In this case, neither, I think. His poem is still just as bittersweet, and the truth of the bird’s extinction just as real.

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