Psalm 55:6: Wings like a—pigeon?

And I said, Oh that I had wings like a dove!
for then would I fly away, and be at rest.

King James Version

I said, “If only I had wings;
like a pigeon I could fly and dwell somewhere.”

Goldingay, The First Testament

My first reaction: Gak, a pigeon? “Dwell somewhere”? Rat with wings. Mismatched diction.

My second reaction: Maybe it’s better. Pulls this text out of the realm of lovely poetry and into the actual mess that is the writer’s (the reader’s?) life right now.

Plus, a colleague who is a specialist in Hebrew Bible has told me before that “pigeon” is a better translation.

When you say “dove” I think of the mourning doves whose cooing and whirring I heard all those mornings when I was a kid delivering the Richmond Times-Dispatch on my Huffy bicycle with all the baskets. Cooing as they sat in their perches. Whirring when I got a little too close and they took off. Smells of bacon cooking wafted out through the windows of the early risers as I tossed rubber-banded papers onto their front porches.

And now, four or five decades later, I hear the same sounds as I walk with Orla the Irish Terrier down the sidewalks of our neighborhood in the summer evenings. These are softly luminous memories, peaceful moments. This is what doves mean to me. Or I think of literary or visual symbols of peace.

I feel no urgency to escape. I do not need to fly away to be at rest.

When you say “pigeon” I recall scenes less pastoral, more urban, for example, a couple of years living in roach-afflicted apartments in a Boston neighborhood where the streets were congested with cars, where a late-evening walk might mean stepping around a rowdy drunk, now passed out near his vomit puddle or trying to figure out what had happened (the bouncers at Bunratty’s had tossed him out). The pigeons—I don’t recall cooing and whirring; I remember their crap on everything.

I recall the Boston high schools where I did some substitute teaching with kids whose sordid and hair-raising daily lives, as exposed in their casual conversation—I don’t know whether it occurred to them to dream of having wings like a pigeon’s, to fly from this vivid nowhere and “dwell somewhere.” When I showed up in their classroom with my tie and jacket, one of them asked if I was an officer of the court. Forty years later, where are they? I don’t run into them as Orla and I walk this suburban West Michigan neighborhood.

On my long bicycle outing Sunday afternoon, I rode down the trail along the Thornapple River in Middleville, back home on country roads, twenty-five miles, and zero people out to get me, with my fancy Jabra earbuds and the Audible app on my iPhone, listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates recalling the streets of his Baltimore boyhood, remembering the first time his sixth-grade self stared down the barrel of another kid’s handgun. Not a tree in sight, no cooing doves. He didn’t say anything about flying like a pigeon. Nor did he have anyone in mind to say it to. His parents and grandparents had no inclination to soften the hard realities by encouraging conversation with some invisible man in the sky.

So whose psalm is this? Mine or his?

Meanwhile, I worry a little bit that Goldingay’s rendering of verse 4 evokes a hairdo that has gone all Little Shop of Horrors:

My mind whirls within me,
deathly dreads have fallen upon me.

Translating ain’t easy.

Deathly dreads—empirically grounded, unescapable fears—are for someone else, not me.

Anyway. Why not end with another cultural memory from my childhood? Somewhere in a box or drawer I still have a cassette that I recorded from the television one Saturday night. Longing for escape can be acute (as in the Psalm) or chronic (and rural), as in this Grandpa Jones classic. Didn’t have to find the tape because YouTube has everything.

If I had wings I’d fly over that mountain,
Go there and live like good people should.
I’m getting mighty tired of living in dreams and butterbeans,
But I’m stuck here forever in the valley of the never do no good.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: