Pharaoh’s Chickens

Egyptian vultures, also called Pharaoh’s chickens, by the Rev. Francis O. Morris (1810-1893), hand-colored wood engraving from A History of British Birds (1850-1857)

For a series of poems having to do with memory and mnemonic devices I found myself reading recently about chickens. Poultry is no stranger to poetry. As every schoolchild knows, “Hiawatha’s chickens” is Longfellow’s term for the wild birds of the forest; and Williams has told us that the location of the red wheelbarrow, upon which much depends, is “beside the white// chickens.” Among my contemporaries, Brenda Coultas writes (in “A Poultice From a Coultas” from The Marvelous Bones of Time), “Count on your chickens which are hatching or all resting in one basket// get your bacon caught in a ringer// like a mule at a trough or silk ear stolen from a sow’s purse.” And in Michael Ondaatje’s Collected Works of Billy the Kid, a chicken hops onto a dying man—shot by Billy—and digs a vein out of his neck and pulls it a goodly distance from the man’s body; Ondaatje described the situation thus—“as if it held that body like a kite//
 Gregory’s last words being// get away from me yer stupid chicken.”

In the service of my own work I’ve recently looked at many pieces online having to do with the gallinaceous birds and came to a number of references to Pharaoh’s hen or Pharaoh’s chickens. Both terms describe the Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus).  The OED lists the first reference as 1755, in a translation from the French (“itself after Arabic”), Frederik Ludvig Norden’s Travels in Egypt and Nubia. And from the Journal of the Royal Geographic Society of London, “This indigen of Africa and Arabia … is called khángá by the people, and dijájat Firaun (Pharaoh’s hen) by the Arabs of the Upper Nile.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia notes that a large vulture, the Lammer-geier, is said to have dropped a tortoise on the bald head of Aeschylus—“which the bird mistook for a stone”—killing the poet, and that “several smaller species, including ‘Pharaoh’s chickens,’ flocked all over Palestine. These were protected by a death penalty for their value as scavengers in cities. They fed on carcasses of animals that killed each other, ate putrid fish under the nests of pelican and cormorant, followed caravans across the desert, and were ready for offal thrown from animals dressed for feasting.”

And I found Peppahot58’s Youtube video, “Mitt Romney’s Money Got Pharaoh’s Chickens [Media] Chicken Little Scared,” a rhyming screed and scathing rant about Mitt Romney, his relationship with Bain Capital, and what Peppahot58 sees as the lack of mainstream-media coverage of that. It’s this last situation that has drawn the video maker’s ire. In the presentation—a heavy series of rhymes with heavy repetition—the media is depicted as vultures: “Like Pharaoh’s chickens the media waits ’til the issue is dead// Then they repeat what someone else said.” Peppahot58 writes, by way of description,

Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney has so much money, he has the Media acting like “Pharaoh’s Chickens”—scared to fly low and criticize Mitt Romney’s money and his Bain Capital business record. … Another name for Pharaoh’s Chickens is Egyptian Vulture—an opportunistic bird, that feeds on the dead. The phrase is also used in street language to define a person who is rather quiet, yet, sometimes chatty, flighty, and light-headed, but, lacking real substance. Sounds like the “Chicken Little” media to me. For the past few days, I’ve watched [the media] fly low on this issue. Why?  Methinks it’s Mitt Money!

Perhaps Peppahot58 is echoing as well the charge brought by Rick Perry during the primaries that “companies like Bain Capital” were “vulture capitalists”; the “opportunistic bird” would speak to that, and there’s some overlap in the song about which vulture is which.

This is not The New Yorker, with its stable of fine phrase-turners, nor is it the Capitol Steps putting “the mock in democracy”—this is an old-fashioned topical song, marvelously gritty, with a lot going on inside it. What Peppahot58 has done is to bring the street and Egypt (and “Pharaoh” is a term with a lot of associations; there’s been a lot, over the years, to tell ol’ Pharaoh) and ornithology itself to bear on the wave of the Romney candidacy.

This evening as I’ve been typing this, Peppahot58 seems to have become Marissa Fortunato. So be it. I’m impressed here and in her other offerings as well with her broad humor and with the range of her sampling. Her videos are soulful, scatological, fiercely partisan, and always funny. Check her out on Youtube.

It’s that range that brings her efforts toward poetry, the thing I started with.

(At the beginning of Sanctuary, the lawyer Horace Benbow says, to Popeye, “I dont suppose you’d know a bird at all, without it was singing in a cage in a hotel lounge, or cost four dollars on a plate.”)

Poetry and poultry. Google “Pharaoh’s Chickens” and a picture of Romney—against a backdrop of legal tender—will pop up on the first page among the depictions of real vultures.



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