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I place the yellow warbler on the big rock
at the head of the path
where it hugs the hillside down into the gulch.
She had hit the south window,
and unlike the thrush last summer
which righted itself, sat up, and later flew off,
she had died.
Holding a wild bird,
warm as an oat cake in a your hands,
ties you to the living wild,
but the odd sweet smell of death,
of these small deaths,
comes from somewhere else.
And so, obeying an ancient voice,
I place her on the big rock
knowing she will be gone in the morning —
like the bones of the wood rat
that lay on the path for weeks
until I put them on the rock.
even the sun will eat the earth in time,
but what does a rock eat
if not still, unmoving things?
Is it the coyotes and the cats
and the scavenger birds at night,
the interns and understudies of decay?
while we’re sleeping,
the great mass of the earth itself
tidying up, absorbing itself,
too old for teeth.
Crows and ravens both,
they tell us about change.
A famous crow in Vancouver has gone missing;
his mate hops the fence expectantly,
and at the same time, here in the foothills
a young crow in distress
circles our house, calling plaintively.
She has lost something:
a parent or a plan, the usual pattern of things.
For the Druids, these black birds
stand between us and the other world.
For them, the raven is Bran, the healer,
though sometimes we heal into loss.
Sometimes we are missing from the old world,
sloughing it off with illness.
Hope and horror both
have their hands on that gate.
The black juvenile circles me
on my morning walk along the Hogback,
drawing a net around my lack of superstition.
She has something urgent to tell me
in what can be
the static doldrums of late summer,
in the season’s dangerous inactivity:
child-changer, she calls,
child, teacher of the man.
Early spring, the house finches
and the big-bodied thrush sat in the black pine,
raided coconut fibers in the window boxes,
nesting long before the hummingbirds
and the wrens showed up.
We would see them above the ridge beam
on the peak of the cabin,
complaining to the morning sun.
I never saw them go in,
although the panels of the roof
were all that divided
attic and the open sky:
the thing was never built to code,
or else the builder loved the high plains enough
to make it easy traffic
for field mice, wood rats, or wasps.
The birds left when the roofers came.
Two days of crowbars and compressors,
hammer blows on plywood sheets,
the old panels, dimpled by hail, peeled away.
The new ones put down.
You never like a stranger
as much as when he builds your house
or makes it warm or weather-tight,
mistaking commerce for care.
Or perhaps it is a kind of care —
there are other jobs.
What do you think? the foreman asked.
Looks good, I said.
I hope there weren’t too many mice.
They pulled fifty from the crawl space
when they put the heaters in.
No mice, he said. We found birds’ nests,
five or six. The guys just tossed them down.
Some of them had eggs.
He looked sideways. Shrugged.
The birds never would have come back anyway.
When they’re disturbed, he said.
He was a local, a long-time foothills man.
We knew that magpies attacked songbirds’ nests,
that cowbirds were brood parasites —
that even the wrens turn out
the hatchlings of other wrens.
But when we walked up the hill
to admire the job
from the neighbor’s wall,
the house gleamed like new coin
in the prairie grass and scrub,
as though it had never loved the land at all.
When you constrain freedom, it will take flight and land on a windowsill.
It was a lighthouse first,
graywacke iced with the shit of seabirds,
guiding ships away, steering them clear.
the very opposite of keeping and holding.
What we notice about prisons,
even this one in San Francisco Bay,
are not walls, but everywhere windows,
small and thick as paperback books.
And then fissures, pierced stone,
elaborate grates in the floors of gun galleries.
We cannot build a wall without needing to puncture it,
to make the windowsills
on which freedoms perch.
There are jails, we know
and there are prisoners,
but always there is an opening,
a cracked glass too wide for despots,
and through it, sweet and punishment,
the shape-thought of a gull in the fog,
the blade of its cry
so sharp it cannot be held,
not even in the heart.
Released to play, my brother and I
kicked a football
against the wayside chapel
that stood at the end of the driveway
of our new apartment block
in a distant suburb of Brussels:
a rural town of chicory fields.
At night, the lights from brothels
along its one road,
framed in new windows,
kept us awake.
But in the morning, school out,
we kicked the ball against the Madonna,
thinking no one here
would need her comfort:
here was the new building,
the red lights,
in the evening, new plaster.
The car ran well; the ball,
with each kick, made a satisfying bounce.
But then a different thud
against the window,
and Mr. Klinsmann walked
around the corner, as though
he had been there all the time,
picked up the bird
that had hit the glass
cupped his thumb and finger
around its throat
and twisted, like a cap, its neck.
Stuff came out the other end,
the neck drooping on his knuckle.
Es ist besser so.
It’s better this way, he said,
the gray neck softer than the Belgian sky
against his thumb.
Kinder, he added,
shaking his head —
and I thought at the time
he had just mispronounced
the English word,
because it was hard
it was hard to imagine
it was hard to imagine ourselves
If I knew, I had forgotten
until something small shook me into doubt.
If I knew it once, it had been shuttered,
before the sun came up, by the sound
of the yellow school bus in the street,
or the diesel engine of the fireman
pulling himself heavily into the forest,
the black-gray shapes of neighbors
off to work, and then,
by steam rising in the pre-dawn cold
from the coal-fired power plant
on the north horizon,
by the lights going out in town
and the coffee shops opening up,
by phones ringing, and the winking glow
of computers on hard vinyl tabletops.
If I knew, I had forgotten
until the Steller’s Jay, chattering in the black pine
like a parent shaking me from sleep,
black-headed like the blueing sky,
and then, the river in the cold undying grass,
the rock, turning to speak out
and not into the earth, for me,
the gray-black shale
slowing long enough for me
and speaking loud enough,
in the reeds and wreath of cottonwoods,
how some important thing
was going on beneath.