Multitudes

14 February 2010

Lord of the Birds, Graciela Iturbide (1984), via.

I’ve always loved the little-used collective nouns that English accumulates — your shrewdness of apes, your exaltation of larks; clattering of jackdaws & mumuration of starlings. Just to list them is to become intoxicated by the accumulation. (We forget, of course, that even the commonest ones, flights & flocks & schools & herds & gaggles & troops, look odd from the outside, in translation, obscure groupings.) The most esoteric & the loveliest attach themselves to birds, & so when I think of nouns of multitude I remember Graciela Iturbide, whose photographs I saw at an exhibition at the Getty in ’08 — looking for them now, I can’t find the two I liked best, one of a cloud of birds suddenly frightened from a tree, hundreds of them surrounding it like a halo, & the other of a veternarian’s arm holding a pelican (I think?), backlit into shadow in front of an x-ray of its bones, the two inverted mirrors of each other, the bones white on black, the bird black on white.

Over Christmas I read John Crowley’s Ægypt & wrote down in my commonplace book a little moment on p. 254: ‘“exalted” as Axel said, by wine.’ What if, as with nouns of multitude — parliament of owls, siege of bitterns — there were verbs of intoxication? Exalted by wine, melancholied by gin, belched by lager, peated by scotch, embittered by ale. Extemporized by brandy . . .

Surely you can think of some better ones.

Carnivale in Bilbao, as I’ve said, brass bands in the streets, light rain, txiquiteros singing through glasses of crianza, the whole city in costume from the children to adults, groups, multitudes, in theme, disguised collectively. I’ve seen gingerbread men, firefighters, fields of strawberries, snowmen, professionals of every occupation, an entire army of playing cards armed with spears attacking a float manned by the Queen of Hearts in drag. And still, it should be said — this is nothing compared to Venice, to Cadiz. Halloween is the palest shadow.

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