Birdcall

- 1937-
        —for Elizabeth Bishop

Tuwee, calls a bird near the house,
Tuwee, cries another, downhill in the woods.
No wind, early September, beeches and pines,

Sumac aflame, tuwee, tuwee, a question and a faint
But definite response, tuwee, tuwee, as if engaged
In a conversation expected to continue all afternoon,

Where is?—I’m here?—an upward inflection in 
Query and in response, a genetic libretto rehearsed
Tens of thousands of years beginning to leave its indelible trace,

Clawprint of language, ritual, dense winged seed,
Or as someone were slowly buttoning a shirt.
I am happy to lie in the grass and listen, as if at the dawn of reason,

To the clear communal command
That is flinging creaturely will into existence,
Designing itself to desire survival,

Liberty, companionship, 
Then the bird near me, my bird, stops inquiring, while the other
Off in the woods continues calling faintly, but with that upward

Inflection, I’m here, I’m here,
I’m here, here, the call opens a path through boughs still clothed
By foliage, until it sounds like entreaty, like anxiety, like life

Imitating the pivotal move of Whitman’s "Out of the Cradle,"
Where the lovebird’s futile song to its absent mate teaches the child
Death—which the ocean also whispers—

Death, death, death it softly whispers,
Like an old crone bending aside over a cradle, Whitman says, 
Or the like the teapot in Elizabeth Bishop’s grandmother’s kitchen,

Here at one end of the chain of being, 
That whistles a song of presence and departure,
Creating comfort but also calling for tears.

More by Alicia Ostriker

psalm

I am not lyric any more
I will not play the harp
for your pleasure

I will not make a joyful
noise to you, neither
will I lament

for I know you drink 
lamentation, too,
like wine

so I dully repeat
you hurt me
I hate you

I pull my eyes away from the hills
I will not kill for you
I will never love you again

unless you ask me 

Exile

The downward turning touch
the cry of time
fire falling without sound
plunge my hand in the wound

children marching and dying
all that I do is a crime
because I do not reach
their mouths silently crying

my boychild reaches with his mouth
it is easy, being a mother
his skin is tender and soft
kisses stitch us together

we love as long as we may
then come years without kisses
when he will turn away
not to waste breath

when I too will fall
embracing a pillow at night
touching the stone of exile
reaching my hand to death

Insomnia

But it's really fear you want to talk about
and cannot find the words
so you jeer at yourself

you call yourself a coward
you wake at 2 a.m. thinking failure,
fool, unable to sleep, unable to sleep

buzzing away on your mattress with two pillows
and a quilt, they call them comforters,
which implies that comfort can be bought

and paid for, to help with the fear, the failure
your two walnut chests of drawers snicker, the bookshelves mourn
the art on the walls pities you, the man himself beside you

asleep smelling like mushrooms and moss is a comfort
but never enough, never, the ceiling fixture lightless
velvet drapes hiding the window

traffic noise like a vicious animal
on the loose somewhere out there—
you brag to friends you won't mind death only dying

what a liar you are—
all the other fears, of rejection, of physical pain,
of losing your mind, of losing your eyes,

they are all part of this!
Pawprints of this! Hair snarls in your comb
this glowing clock the single light in the room