Poetry: Deliver Me

I’m not sure how to introduce this poem, so I won’t, except to say it contains a great deal of suffering. My partner and I went to Wyandotte County Lake today and saw thousands of migrating snow geese. Suffering gave way to beauty, until I remembered how difficult migration is. Many birds won’t make it. Life is not easy. Deliver me.


Deliver Me

Deliver me from the insects that have consumed
my brain and left frass in its place.
………………………………………….Deliver me
from the sea louse attached to the base of my tongue.

Deliver me from the samurai beetle, the death’s head
hawk moth, the heike crab, the human-faced carp,
and the skull-back spider.
……………………………….Deliver me from the duck embryo

boiled alive and eaten in its egg.
………………………………………Deliver me
from the marmot cooked in its skin with hot stones
arranged inside its carcass.
…………………………………Deliver me from auks

laid inside the hollowed-out body of a seal.
Deliver me from the rocks placed on the seal’s
body. Deliver me from the months in which the auks

are stored in this manner. Deliver me from the day
the seal is uncovered. Deliver me from the minutes
in which the auks are pulled out one by one

and eaten raw.
………………….Deliver me from ash, salt, quicklime,
rice hulls, and clay.
………………………Deliver me from the sheep-head
that my head has become.
………………………………..Deliver me from the tentacle

in my throat.
……………….Deliver me from the tuna’s eyes,
which have replaced my own, and from my eyes,
which float in brine.
………………………..Deliver me from the cow’s feet,

from her head, and from her stomach.
……………………………………………….Deliver me
from the durian fruit and from its kidney-shaped
segments of flesh.
……………………..Deliver me from the fish filleted

while alive and served to guests with a beating heart.
Deliver me from pork blood, from milk, from rye flour,
from dark molasses, from onion, from butter.

Deliver me from pale, plated cockscombs.
…………………………………………………..Deliver me
from the occipital bone, the parietal bones, the frontal
bone, the temporal bones, the sphenoid bone,

the ethmoid bone. Deliver me from the bones
of the cranium and mass the cranium contains.
Deliver me from the singing penis, the bifurcated

penis, the four-headed penis, the clasping penis,
the dueling penis, the y-shaped penis, the spiral penis,
the giant penis, the detachable penis, the pseudo-penis,

the barbed penis, the surprise penis, the slapping penis,
and the penis that regrows before each mating season,
sometimes even harder than the year before.

Deliver me from words — alluvial, bromine, burr, callus,
capsule, coccyx, cud, plasma, pollen, scud, sequin, spore,
stone.
………Deliver me from binomial naming.
………………………………………………….Deliver me

from brain signals that tell me to run fast and hard
and away, always away.
…………………………….Deliver me from my body fat,
which is already being called home by gravity, the way

a dollop of lard slides down an upright spoon.
Deliver me from an overdose of organ-destroying
skunk cabbage, from a plateful of toxic buttercups,

from the topical burn of the giant hogweed,
from the blood disturbance caused by a tongue-tip
worth of death camus. Deliver me from angel trumpets

fashioned into biological weapons. Deliver me
from the spiked canes of Himalayan blackberry,
from the stinging Gympie-Gympie tree,

from the neurotoxic tree nettle, from spur laurel’s
biocides, and from Red Tide algae that stills
the lungs.
…………..Deliver me from the Fibonacci sequence

of my fingers, which allows my hand to curl into a fist.
Deliver me from wild horses turned into horse meat,
from intestines behind the processing plant that meander

like dunes. Deliver me from the carnation reds
and off-whites of the fresh entrails and the rubies
of those dumped the previous day. Deliver me

from the need to catalog days by color until
there is no more color, only shades of brown
in the cooling air. Deliver me from the hay laid

over ceca and intestines, over colons and rectums.
Deliver me from the heart of the animal, from the head
that stares into the distance.
…………………………………..Deliver me from electrodes

and optical coils, from the cage and the restraining chair.
Deliver me from brain-mapping, sterilization,
dissection, and genetic profiling. Deliver me

from available space and profit margins.
From the dry casks of Yucca Mountain.
From the love I still feel for my own body

in the long shadows of evening light.
Deliver me from any or all of these.
…………………………………………..Deliver me
from nothing.
………………..Open the door and deliver me.

Bird Roll Call: December 31, 2017

  • American coot
  • American crow
  • American goldfinch
  • American kestrel
  • American robin
  • Bald eagle (four)
  • Black-capped chickadee
  • Blue jay
  • Blue-winged teal
  • Cackling goose
  • Canada goose
  • Carolina wren
  • Common goldeneye
  • Dark-eyed junco
  • Downy woodpecker
  • Eastern bluebird
  • European starling
  • Hermit thrush*
  • Hooded merganser
  • House finch
  • House sparrow
  • Lesser scaup
  • Mallard
  • Mourning dove
  • Northern cardinal
  • Northern flicker
  • Red-bellied woodpecker
  • Red-tailed hawk
  • Redhead
  • Ring-billed gull
  • Rock pigeon
  • Snow goose (so many!)
  • Trumpeter swan
  • Tufted titmouse
  • White-breasted nuthatch
  • White-throated sparrow
  • Yellow-bellied sapsucker

Locations — in my backyard, at Wyandotte County Lake, and while driving to and from these locations. A single asterisk indicates first sighting.

Twitter: Road Ends in Water

The snow is frosting sprinkled with nyjer seed.

Geese fly by so low I’m afraid they’ll get snagged on the sweetgums.

Crack. Crack. Swallow. Crack. Crack. Swallow. A blue jay shells peanuts and caches them in his expandable throat.

What is the yellow-bellied sapsucker still doing here?

There’s a sweetness to birders, like the time two women barreled across Heritage Park to make sure I’d seen the bald eagle.

Sign: Road ends in water.

Ice on a lake sings like someone playing one thousand saws.

Next to a white horse, a brown horse with a white face.

Out in the freshly tilled field: meadowlarks.

Through the dead grass, I see a man fishing.

A funeral procession passes as I stand in the field looking at meadowlarks.

Because the water is frozen, snow geese have landed in a field.

From a sparrow identification guide: The field sparrow’s song “sounds like a ball bouncing down to rest.”

I met a birder today on top of a dam. Her name is a combination of the words candelabra and mandolin. We saw pelicans.

Meadowlarks and starlings fly back and forth — low in the field — as if performing reiki on the earth.

Home: glass strike; no body. I am lousy with concern.

The woman with the beautiful name taught me how to pronounce the word merganser.

Rock pigeons stand on a frozen marsh.

Rural Kansas: the geometry of utility poles and power lines.

Bird Roll Call: December 30, 2017

  • American coot
  • American goldfinch
  • Black-capped chickadee
  • Blue jay
  • Canada goose
  • Cooper’s hawk
  • Dark-eyed junco
  • Downy woodpecker
  • European starling
  • House finch
  • House sparrow
  • Mallard
  • Mourning dove
  • Mute swan
  • Northern cardinal
  • Northern flicker
  • Northern shoveler (five pairs)
  • Red-bellied woodpecker
  • Red-tailed hawk
  • Rock pigeon
  • Song sparrow
  • White-throated sparrow

Of note, we also saw two eagle’s nests.

Locations — in my backyard, at Sprint Wetlands, at Villa Medici (where the swans live), and while driving through town.

Poetry: Death by Scaphism

When I was driving to and from an area lake today, I saw many instances of death. A dead puppy by the highway. A dead raccoon next to a country road. A funeral procession that appeared out of nowhere while I was standing in a field watching meadowlarks. Death isn’t easy, ever. “Death by Scaphism” deals with a particular type of death, namely the suffering inflicted by a particularly cruel form of execution. It is both literal and figurative in that it describes a way of dying while also serving as a metaphor for the ways we suffer while still living. This poem first appeared in FRiGG.


Death by Scaphism

To lie bound inside a boat. To have milk and honey
forced into the mouth until insects arrive to feed
on the sweet feces. To have milk and honey poured
over the body. To feel each rolling along the skin —
one like rain, the other like sap — before both
settle on the underside where flesh meets wood.
To have the eyes and ears doused, the genitals
and the anus. To be covered over with a second boat,
the two lashed together. To be set afloat in
a shallow pool. To be left with hands, feet,
and face exposed to the sun, everything between
in perpetual darkness. To be stung. To be bitten.
To become a home for insects. To feel the face
and the ass brim with maggots. To birth a colony
of flies and their descendants. To feel muscle
and fat, organs and excrement, infuse the boat’s
hull. To be fed and doused and set afloat for days
on end. To have no end. To lose track of days.
To forget the offense. To rise above the water,
the body and the boats. To look down on ruin.

Bird Roll Call: December 29, 2017

  • American coot
  • American crow
  • American goldfinch
  • American robin
  • American tree sparrow
  • American white pelican
  • Bald eagle (six)
  • Black-capped chickadee
  • Blue jay
  • Blue-winged teal
  • Bufflehead
  • Canada goose
  • Carolina wren
  • Chipping sparrow
  • Common goldeneye
  • Cooper’s hawk
  • Dark-eyed junco
  • Downy woodpecker
  • Eastern bluebird
  • Eastern / western meadowlark
  • European starling
  • Great blue heron
  • House finch
  • House sparrow
  • Greater / lesser scaup*
  • Mallard
  • Mourning dove
  • Northern cardinal
  • Northern flicker
  • Northern harrier
  • Red-bellied woodpecker
  • Red-shouldered hawk
  • Red-tailed hawk
  • Ring-billed gull
  • Ring-necked duck*
  • Rock pigeon
  • Rough-legged hawk*
  • Snow geese
  • White-breasted nuthatch
  • White-throated sparrow
  • Yellow-bellied sapsucker

Locations — in my backyard, at Clinton Lake, and while driving to and from these locations. A single asterisk indicates first sighting.

Bird Roll Call: December 28, 2017

  • American crow
  • American goldfinch
  • American kestrel
  • American robin
  • American tree sparrow
  • Bald eagle (pair)
  • Black-capped chickadee
  • Blue jay
  • Canada goose
  • Chipping sparrow
  • Common goldeneye
  • Cooper’s hawk
  • Dark-eyed junco
  • Downy woodpecker
  • Eastern bluebird
  • European starling
  • Great blue heron
  • Harris’s sparrow
  • House finch
  • House sparrow
  • Mallard
  • Mourning dove
  • Northern cardinal
  • Northern flicker
  • Northern harrier
  • Purple finch
  • Red-bellied woodpecker
  • Red-shouldered hawk
  • Red-tailed hawk
  • Red-winged blackbird
  • Ring-billed gull
  • Rock pigeon
  • Snow geese (overhead)
  • Song sparrow
  • Tufted titmouse
  • White-crowned sparrow
  • White-throated sparrow

Locations — in my backyard, at Clinton Lake, at Baker Wetlands, and while driving to and from these locations.

Bird Roll Call: December 27, 2017

  • American coot
  • American crow
  • American goldfinch
  • American robin
  • Black-capped chickadee
  • Blue jay
  • Canada goose
  • Carolina wren
  • Cooper’s hawk
  • Dark-eyed junco
  • Downy woodpecker
  • European starling
  • Gadwall
  • Great blue heron
  • Hooded Merganser
  • House finch
  • House sparrow
  • Mallard
  • Mourning dove
  • Northern cardinal
  • Northern flicker
  • Northern shoveler (three pairs)
  • Pied-billed grebe
  • Purple finch
  • Red-bellied woodpecker
  • Red-winged blackbird (overhead)
  • Ring-billed gull (overhead)
  • White-throated sparrow
  • White-winged dove*

Locations — in my backyard, at Sprint Wetlands, and while driving through town.

Essays: Baubles

This time of year, American robins move in large flocks. They adorn bare trees all over our area. Last weekend, they came to our backyard in waves. Their washed-out orange underparts made it look like our sweetgum trees were covered in apricots. Stone fruit. Flesh clinging to a hard center clinging to a branch. I haven’t seen any robins for two days, but I know if I drove out to the nearest wetlands or even cruised across town, I’d see them clutching the trees, their legs like thick stems.

Robin, by John James Audubon. Image used in accordance with U.S. public domain laws.

Last week, I learned how to tell the difference between the male and female robin. Each time half a dozen or more gathered at our birdbath, I practiced my identification skills. “Male, male, male, female, male.” Now that I know what I’m looking at, the distinction is obvious. Her coloration is so much softer, especially her head, which is greige as opposed to charcoal or sable. Still, more than four decades of my life passed before I could see anything other than a generic robin — the Platonic ideal of the bird, perhaps. I was not seeing them, only some loosely held idea of them that came to feel like seeing.

Robin. It’s a soft word, like a wool sweater on a cold night. A comfortable word for a bird who brought me comfort as a child. The muted browns. The rich oranges. These birds carried fall’s earthy color palette on their bodies along with the promise of all that fall is after the terrible brutality of a hot, dry summer — one in which emotions routinely got out of hand as oppressive days ground into stifling nights. Nothing mixed well with the heat: not exertion, not rest, not that last glass of vodka, not my parents’ dealings with one another or with me.

My mother loved robins and would shrill “Robin! Robin!” whenever she saw one at the birdbath. Not all birds received such a ceremonious reception. The robin was on my mother’s bird-celebrity shortlist, along with the northern cardinal and, in the number one spot, the scissor-tailed flycatcher, who was our state bird. I’m not sure how any birds made their way to that birdbath, let alone the ones my mother loved most. My father had bulldozed the backyard and veneered the soil with concrete. Like frosting, he skimmed the concrete with a mixture of pebbles and epoxy. He left two trees standing — a magnolia and a sweetgum. The latter died, most likely from the abuse of having its surface roots constricted. My mother put a birdbath where the sweetgum had been. Like its surroundings, the bath was made of concrete. She placed rust-colored lava rocks on the circle of exposed earth that had surrounded the tree. The birdbath rose from the rocks like a whimsical headstone. Bird sightings were few and far between, but now and again a desperate winged creature would traverse the concrete jungle for a few sips of water and a bath on a feverous day.

That was my introduction to birds. Ultimately, they were baubles to my mother, as I was her bauble. She never moved beyond her initial excitement about seeing birds to actually watching them. Like everything, they were accessories. Bird. Child. Earrings. A pair of strappy sandals into which she wedged her tumid feet. Each played the same role and had the same status. Birds were something to chirpily declare having seen — “I saw a cardinal today!” — as if, as an extension of herself, the birds made her more valuable than she was on her own. They weren’t something to care for, to learn about, to appreciate, to protect. They certainly weren’t something to be with or to go out of one’s way for. My mother never went into the woods or fields or grasslands looking for birds, leaving her own world in order to get a glimpse of theirs. With the exception of my father, everything that came and went in her life did so on her terms. She was a planet. Everything else was a celestial object pulled for a time into her orbit. So I grew up with vague impressions of a few birds, namely my mother’s favorites.

What my father contributed to my understanding of birds amounted to coddling purple martins while attempting to starve European starlings. The martins got a fancy hotel in the sky, as blinding in the sun as the crest of a wave on a bright day. Below, he set a trap for the starlings: a wire cage that allowed them to enter but not exit. The device was not unlike the hanging cages used in Europe during the medieval period. I ended the torture the day after my father caught his first starling. I couldn’t bear witness to that barbaric form of execution and not do something. I found an older child in the neighborhood who was able to reach the trap and convinced her to open it. I knew I’d pay later. I didn’t care. The bird flew off, and that meant everything to me. My father stopped putting the purple martin house up after that. Its green and white facade languished in the back corner of our property until he died, and for two decades thereafter. My mother hated it but couldn’t bring herself to remove it. Unlike the starling he tried to starve, my father died quickly. Heart attack. Two words like stones that I didn’t know until I knew them and he was gone, a bird set free from a trap.

We had two juvenile robins in our yard this summer. That was before I was serious about watching birds. These were just two of the animals we inherited when we purchased our house in June. They were adorable in the way baby birds always seem to be. They don’t know quite what to make of the world or their place in it. I can’t imagine experiencing and processing so much so quickly. Every day for them is life and death, not that they think about it in those terms. But something in them knows already, if “knows” is the right word, to be on alert. If they used language, verbs like “fly,” “dart,” and “take cover” would be central to their vocabulary. They would be governed by a lexicon of imperatives.

It’s hard to look at birds and not think about the trauma I’ve experienced and the ways it’s shaped me. My working vocabulary is not unlike the one I’ve imposed on them. I, too, dart and take cover when I sense danger, even when no danger is present. Perhaps this is why I feel so protective of birds, why I whisper prayers for them under my breath or plead with them to hang in there. “Please make it through the day,” I would say to the juvenile robins. “Just try.” Then I would look for them the next day and, seeing them, smile.

My relationship with the young robins was quieter and more intimate than the one I have with the flocks who’ve visited the yard recently. Those adults have come by the dozens for the sole purpose of drinking water then moving on. With each wave, a handful of starlings also arrived. They seemed to be shadowing the robins, perhaps to take advantage of their ability to find resources. Between the robins and the starlings, the whole yard was mobbed. It looked like a pointillist painting, each bird a dab of black or brown ink. My partner was intimidated by the crowd. I’m not sure the smaller birds appreciated it, either.

Birds are complicated. They aren’t the simplistic trinkets my mother took them for. What I know about them is changing with each day, each encounter. I’ve learned that they don’t sound the same from place to place. The dark-eyed juncos use calls in the country that they don’t use in my backyard. They don’t act the same, either. Within a species, some birds are bolder than others. Some appear to be teachers while others are more apt to watch and learn. Some take the opportunity to feed while others are sleeping. Some experiment while others go by the books. Complexity exists at the group level as well. Case in point: The sparrows are fighting right next to me at the window feeder. Hierarchy is being established and defended. One’s place in the hierarchy can mean the difference between surviving the winter and succumbing to its cruelties. As I watched the flocks of robins who swarmed my yard, I realized there were more social dynamics among them than I would ever understand. My knowledge of them is akin to looking into a room through a cracked door. I see some of the details, but I have no idea what the room really looks like.

My relationship with birds is growing more complicated. I thought I’d signed up for learning their names and how to identify them. But now I’m involved. I’m moving away from my mother’s “Robin! Robin!” approach and into something else. “Bird” is coming to mean something richer, stranger and more mysterious than it ever did when I was a child staring at a cement birdbath girdled by a cement lawn, a single bird writhing in the shallow water — though now that I think about it, the birds I watched as a child were just as rich, strange and mysterious as any. Fancy that.

Twitter: Midfield

Midfield, / attached to nothing, / the skylark singing. — Basho

First snow, first junco tracks.

A spot of clean ground. This is where the rabbit laid while snow fell.

Sapphire sky beneath a sheet of vellum.

The winter sky has netted a colony of ring-billed gulls.

The chill carried a pine siskin to my yard.

Christmas morning. The Carolina wren sings.

At the top of the sweetgum tree, a tail flicks.

Winter: The dogwood blooms with finches.

House finch: Your crown is dried blood.

Northern flicker: You carry the sun under your wings.

All day I saw the Carolina wren. Still, I felt such loneliness.

We’ve been apart for so long that I can finally think of you fondly.

A little boy rides his new toy up and down the street.

One of the juncos drags its long toenails through the snow.

There and then not there: the chickadee.

The blue jays have me surrounded.

Now the blue jays are gone. They’re off mobbing a hawk.

No shadow like a hawk’s shadow.

When I’m with birds, it doesn’t matter that I’m not with people.

The songbirds exit stage right. The Cooper’s hawk enters stage left.

Winter: A great blue heron slips on a frozen marsh.

Today, a man touched me on the arm. I did not know him.