How clearly you know what you have

One in the Hand
Jorie Graham

Minding the gap: in-flight body awareness in birds
Ingo Schiffner, Hong D. Vo, Partha S. Bhagavatula, and Mandyam V. Srinivasan

In her poem “One in the Hand,” Jorie Graham uses a bird flying into a dense bush to convey a sense of intent and precision. The first few lines introduce the image:

A bird re-entering a bush
like an idea regaining
its intention, seeks
the missed discoveries
before attempting
flight again.
The small black spirit
locks in its wings,
softest accordion
whose music is
the perfect landing,
the disappearance
into the dangerous
wintered body
of forsythia.

The physical description here is worth analyzing. As someone who regularly bangs his shins against tables, I was struck by the reminder of how expertly birds navigate narrow spaces in mid-flight. Think about it: even Graham’s choice of the forsythia emphasizes how impossible this should be. Forsythia, even in the winter when they’ve shed their leaves and flowers, are essentially just tangles of branching stems. The fact that a small bird can zip in and out of this mess at full speed should astonish us. 


Forsythia in winter

In addition to its physical presence in the poem, the bird is also a representation of pure thought, driven by a raw animal intention—we might call it “instinct”—that never fails to reach its target. This setup is crucial. The next lines follow a hinge (“Just as…”) that links the bird’s behavior to our own:

Just as
from time to time
we need to seize again
the whole language
in search of
better desires. Oh
if we could only imagine
a better arc
of flight: you get
just what you want.

With the appearance of “we,” Graham introduces a human element: conspicuously indecisive, searching for something better, wanting to start over. The bird never hesitates—one gets the sense that it’s not capable of hesitation, that the option of hesitation, the need for it, never occurs to the bird. But humans are always second-guessing. A melancholy settles over the poem here, evoking feelings of failure, insufficiency, and regret (“if we could only…”) that contrast the self-assuredness of the bird’s flight.

Graham’s image here made me wonder: how does the bird know? How can it be so confident?

A research article published in Frontiers in Zoology offers some answers. The authors describe an experiment in which they sent birds flying down a long tunnel with a gap that could be manually widened or narrowed.


Diagram of the experimental setup: the bird flies from left to right, passing through the adjustable gap underneath the camera

Schiffner et al. (2014)

They used an overhead high-speed camera to record how the birds modified their behavior when approaching gaps of different widths.

The subjects were seven adult male wild type budgerigars (Melopsittacus undulatus) between three and five years old. They were purchased from a pet shop at an age of approximately one month and were housed in an outdoor aviary.

I love these details. Of course, it wasn’t exactly earth-shattering to discover that the birds closed their wings when approaching gaps that were narrower than their wingspan, in the same way that people rotate their shoulders to pass through a tight doorway. However, I was astonished at their accuracy: the birds generally did not close their wings until the width of the gap was within 6% of their wingspan. That’s confidence.


Time-lapse images of a bird closing its wings as it flies through a gap narrower than the bird’s wingspan

Schiffner et al. (2014)

I found it interesting that the authors describe this phenomenon in purely mathematical terms:

Let us assume that each bird carries within its nervous system a representation of the characteristic function that corresponds to a gap of width equal to its wingspan. If the bird approaches a gap that is narrower than its wingspan, the rate of change of gap width will be consistently higher than that carried in the internal representation, at each visual angle. The confidence of the hypothesis (gap < wingspan) can therefore be built up by integrating the differences that are sensed at successive visual angles as the gap is approached. A decision to close the wings can be made when this integrated difference exceeds an internally set threshold.

In essence: birds may have some hard-wired way of calculating the width of an approaching gap and adjusting their flight pattern accordingly. In the context of Graham’s poem, the automatic quality of this description seems particularly resonant. We can imagine the bird darting into the forsythia without thinking, simply using the flow of visual information to inform where it inserts itself into the web of branches, never doubting that it will make “the perfect landing.”

After showing us this image and contrasting the bird’s mechanical precision—and its inevitable success—with human uncertainty, Graham’s poem takes a turn:

And see how beautiful
an alphabet becomes
when randomness sets in,
like mother tired
after disappointment
and keeping us
uninformed—the man
walking away whom we
want to recall
and in whom we invest
the whole explanation.

Things have been turned upside down: in the first half of the poem, we marvel at the bird’s infallibility; now, we see the beauty in randomness, in slipping up.

Trying to boil the poem down to its concrete beats diminishes its resonance. (Consider how the word “recall” manages to inhabit so many definitions—to remember something, to summon back someone who has departed, to remove a defective item from circulation, to disavow—without losing momentum. It’s dizzying.) But it may be useful to spell out a few key images. There’s the way Graham connects a mutating alphabet to the slippage of a tired mother, who seems to reveal something she hadn’t intended. And, most critically, the ambiguous “man walking away” who is powerfully linked back to our single-minded bird, as the poem’s title comes into focus:

One in the hand,
one in the mind,
how clearly you know
what you have, how clearly
what he’ll want to do, and do,
when you let go.

Here, Graham cracks open that common phrase “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” What do we expect to happen, she asks, when we capture someone who has left us? He will only leave again.

Given the poem’s characterization of the bird in the early lines, there’s no room for doubt about “what he’ll want to do”—Graham immediately pins “and do” to the end of the line, for emphasis. It’s a foregone conclusion. We have no control of anything other than how long we hold our hand closed.

And yet, the poem ends with the bird still in our fist. We haven’t let go yet. We know, with an almost scientific certainty, what will happen when we do, but that moment hovers just out of reach off the page, leaving us suspended in a kind of irrational hope.