‘The Bin Hover’ — In Defence of the Ibis

Lake Northam’s underrated waterbirds deserve a fairer moniker.


I saw this awning’s boring minion, king-
dom of dumpster’s dauphin, debris-dirt-drawn chicken, in his perching
On the roofing level, underneath him ready bins, and searching
Slime tins, how he tastes upon the trash of a fleeting fling
In his ecstasy! then scoff, scoff onion ring,
As a fruit’s peel sweet slips down a beak-bend: the hurl and lurching
Released the big wind. My nose in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the mischieve of, the great greed of the thing!

Crude cruelty and vanity and slack, no fair, snide, fume, swear,
Heckle! STAND the liar that berates thee then, so stricken.
Thine soul lovelier, more marvellous, though, why your smelly air?

No wonder of it: we’re sods, make foul our own villain!
Shine, and bathe bright feathers, how we dare
Call, appal ourselves. Ibis! not bin chicken.

~*~

Like many students at the University of Sydney, I have a great fondness for Victoria Park and, in particular, Lake Northam — the small body of water on the corner of Broadway and City Road that plays host to congregating birds. Glancing over the lake on a sunny day, one is reliably greeted by a cross-section of the city’s avian population: in the water, ducks and swamphens swim; on the banks, seagulls and pigeons prowl; and, in the trees, lorikeets, kookaburras, and cockatoos call out to one another. 

Countless times, I’ve sat on the shoreline in a nook in the roots of a banyan tree to enjoy the vista and write poetry (yes, I know, very cool). There are few pastimes as ancient as this, and fewer subjects more prone to stir the poetic imagination than birds. Their elegant forms, majesty in flight, beautiful songs, and wandering souls all populate the imagery of countless poets from across time and place: Coleridge, Dickinson, Keats, Yeats, Neruda, Noonuccal — they all doted on our feathered friends. 

Few poems so eloquently capture the bird’s poetic capacity like Gerard Manley Hopkins’ famed sonnet, ‘The Windhover’. The poem is a treatment of the experience of beholding a kestrel’s unique gift for hovering, motionless on an updraft, to scout for prey before diving toward a kill. The bird takes on the mantle of a prince, riding and commanding the air as a knight rides a horse and as royalty commands a kingdom. 

The poem’s volta — the thematic and structural shift of a sonnet marked by its ‘volt’ from first stanza to second — responds to the kestrel’s sudden dive, depicting the persona’s shock at its brilliance. The dive is symbolic of the sensation of revelation — the kestrel, none other than the prince of God’s kingdom, and his dive, divinity. Across fourteen lines, Hopkins masterfully channels, through a single symbolic bird, a prince, a revelation, the reception of the holy spirit, and the promise of new life. All the while, the poem’s sprung rhythm seamlessly rolls through the repeated verbing suffix of “ing” and rhyming nouns in “king”, “wing”, and “thing”, such that these interconnected noun and verb forms reflect the being and doing of the bird that is simultaneously resolute in its place in the sky and in constant action to maintain that state. My irreligion aside, the poem is a tour de force but I won’t go on. 

Among the birds of the University is another species that, though relatively new to Sydney’s skies and waterways, is difficult to ignore: the white ibis. Reading this, you may be of the view that ibises need no disambiguation; their long beaks and white, odorous feathers, stained brown by nefarious behaviour, have one ubiquitous association: bin diving. Though their slender legs and pronounced beaks evolved for wading in water and digging in soft river beds, they’ve taken to wading in waste and digging through debris, earning the moniker of ‘bin chicken’. I can’t stand the term. 

Parodying Hopkins’ sonnet in ‘The Bin Hover’, I mount a defence of this most misunderstood of Sydney’s birds. My poem supplants the kestrel of the original with an ibis, the wind with rooftops and the rims of bins, and the dive for prey with the dive into trash. In doing so, I treat the ibis with an ironic grandeur, while pointing to the fact that both Hopkins and I are, ultimately, presenting a treatment of the same thing: a bird’s instinctual search for food.  

Where Hopkins’ volta sees the persona revel in the divinity of creation and salvation, my persona’s revelation is that of his own hypocrisy, and of the ibis’ innate beauty, masked by its stench. The ibis swimming in Lake Northam, with its feathers shining clean and bright, is a beautiful creature. The ‘bin chicken’, this villain borne out of our wastefulness, only behaves as it does given the environment we have constructed for it. I won’t go on about minute word choices but if you enjoy reading the poem then I encourage you to look up Hopkins’ original and to consider them beside one another. I’ve done my best to retain the original’s sense of rhyme and assonance as well as its alliterative couplets. 

I despise the ‘bin chicken’. I adore the ibis. I implore you to hold your nose and do the same.