In a meadow  
as wide as a wound 
I thought to stop  
and study the lesser stitchwort’s  
white flowers lacing up  
boot-level grasses 
when I was scolded in song 
by a black and white bird  
whose wings sipped air, 
swallow-like, until he landed  
on the highest tip 
of yellow dock,  
still singing his beautiful warning, 
the brown female  
with him in fear.  
The warning was real: 
the anniversary of my husband’s suicide.  
What was the matter with life? Sometimes 
when wind blows, 
the meadow moves like an ocean, 
and on that day, 
I was in its wake— 
I mean the day in the meadow. 
I mean the day he died.  
This is not another suicide poem. 
This is a poem about a bird 
I wanted to know and so 
I spent that evening looking 
up his feathers and flight,  
spent most of the night 
searching for mating habits  
and how to describe the yellow 
nape of his neck like a bit  
of gothic stained glass, 
or the warm brown 
females with a dark eyeline.  
How could I have known  
like so many species  
they too are endangered? 
God must be exhausted: 
those who chose life; 
those who chose death.  
That day I braided a few 
strips of timothy hay  
as I waited for the pair 
to move again, to lift  
from the field and what,  
live? The dead can take 
a brother, a sister; not really.  
The dead have no one.  
Here in this field  
I worried the mowers 
like giant gorging mouths 
would soon begin again 
and everything would be  
as it will.


          Do you know what I was, how I lived?
                     —Louise Glück
It is a goldfinch
one of the two
small girls,
both daughters
of a friend,
sees hit the window
and fall into the fern.
No one hears
the small thump but she,
the youngest, sees
the flash of gold
against the mica sky
as the limp feathered envelope
crumples into the green.
How many times
in a life will we witness
the very moment of death?
She wants a box
and a small towel
some kind of comfort
for this soft body
that barely fits
in her palm. Its head
rolling side to side,
neck broke, eyes still wet
and black as seed.
Her sister, now at her side,
wears a dress too thin
for the season,
white as the winter
only weeks away.
She wants me to help,
wants a miracle.
Whatever I say now
I know weighs more
than the late fall’s
layered sky,
the jeweled leaves
of the maple and elm.
I know, too,
it is the darkest days
I’ve learned to praise —
the calendar packages up time,
the days shrink and fold away
until the new season.
We clothe, burn,
then bury our dead.
I know this;
they do not.
So we cover the bird,
story its flight,
imagine his beak
They pick the song
and sing it
over and over again.

Related Poems

Memory-Wax, Knowledge-Bird

—for R.C. Quick

I saw him in the summers when the leaves were green.
Down by the lake where ivy covered the ground. Where
The dogwood’s new pale moon flowers browned
At the edge by brittle June. I saw him then
Fishing for lake trout throwing the sunfish too bony
Back. The sun moved across the sky, around the earth,
A day, a day, and bees, those day-laborers, heaved
Pollen and carried a sting, and bore on their gleaming
Backs a stripe of day and a stripe of night, of night,
A robber moon, thief of her own life, and in the hive
Round as the moon, they locked the work of the field
Away in wax vaults, food for Time to eat some other
Time, the bees.
                         In the fall I went away to where I lived
The year. He’d walk the changed woods gathering
Leaves no longer living—cast in the color shroud
Of no one’s weaving—a brighter thought thinks
The gold-finch dull, though the cardinal pretends
Not to notice or know—and taking death’s small portion
Home, dipped the leaves in paraffin wax. Let them dry.
Let them cool. Put them in a department store box
And sent them through the air to my home.
I could be there with him in the woods in no other
Way. No other path led to the maple leaf’s dying-sun-
Red larger than my hand that held it. No other path
Led to the oak leaf’s cinder-glow-below-dark-ash
Orange. The dark-faith-sunspot-hours of yellow
Beech. The minutes-of-green-flame-faith buried
Within the darkening love of the almond leaf.
Leaf by leaf I took them out and put them on
The floor, and when there was no more, I put
Them back in the empty box, fit on the lid, and hid
New memory in the closet with the other dead
            Closet where as I child I hid myself and hid
My fears. From where in the night I could hear
Voices speak my name, could hear a song play
On a cylinder of wax, a violence, a violin, a piano
Note beneath the static and the static like a heartbeat
Throbbed, like a sudden wind blown through
The mind-tree’s wax-covered leaves a wind
That suddenly dies—the voices, they were legion,
The chorus in the blood, mumbling out the grave
Delay, gravel on the cemetery driveway, the stones
Time wears away, time wears away their names.
              Child-no-longer-young who used to play.
Dipping finger in the candle wax and peeling it off
Like another skin. The fingerprint lit up by flame.
Melting it. Doing it again. And that other finger.
The one not yours. The one not seen by anyone.
That finger that pressing down on the mind’s hard wax
Softens it. Then there is nothing that won’t
Make its impression—sun-script on small waves,
Sun-page on flat stone, sun-shaft shot down
Through the canopy-maze of the dark leaves,
The bright spot on the ground. And more. More
Faces. The people I love. Strangers. The music
Of their least thought words—the baby’s sleeping
With his mouth open; I don’t think that’s how you spell it;
The weatherman got it wrong—helplessly recorded
On the wax-hemisphere until so many voices
Overlap no single voice remains. Not a chorus.
A chaos. A static. A hum.
                                          And then some voice
Asks you what you think.
                                          And then some voice
Asks you to think:
                                I think the beehive looks like
The full moon that lights it up—the mind says
To itself—I think the child’s hand is an oak leaf—
A theory—what the soul says to itself—is thinking—
So many leaves—the eye says to itself—from trees
Fall down into the wax—I know—the edges
Touch and the wax melds—and I don’t know—
The leaves together—what I know—can’t be told
Apart—says the tongue to itself—all by itself—
What I know I can’t tell—I can’t pull it apart—


But there are other theories—says the mind
Of the mind. No ball of wax
Into which the falling leaves fall and leave
Memory: always a world, never the—.
There are the birds:
                                 The do-not-touch-me
For-I-am-not-yours scarlet tanager—.
The wound-I-bear-I-do-not-feel rose-breasted
Grosbeak—.   The who-clasped-around-my-neck-
This-chain-if-not-God dove—. The I-carry-the-sun-
On-my-back bobolink—. The I-wear-the-sun-
Between-my-eyes white-throated sparrow—.
Oriole that weaves a tear from tufts of deer
And thistle down—. Hermit thrush who cries
Inside her song—. There are the
Each a body. Each a kind of knowledge
Flying through the columbarium
And to catch one is to know. Know what?
Something otherwise
                                forgot. What is good—.
What is love—. What is the geometric proof
Of God or love written on the dusky wing
Of the mourning dove—.
                                       Ethics scratches
For grubs in the dust in which it bathes—.
The pigeon’s red foot—. Aren’t there
Other wounds flying through the air—
Wonders than honor-in-war and words worse
Than rage—
                     the broken gold gears
In the blue jay’s throat—
                                         the crow that dares
The kid with a bb-gun to shoot—.
                                                       But shouldn’t we
Imagine there are other kinds of birds, birds
Of ignorance flying about the soul with those others?—
Flying about those woods?—
                                                nesting in nothing
But the hand that cups it, catches it—
                                                            sings a song
Called oblivion—
                              gives what cannot be taught
But only caught—
                              the blank behind the eye—
the empty vault—
                               the un-thought—.

Our Bird Aegis

An immature black eagle walks assuredly
across a prairie meadow. He pauses in mid-step
with one talon over the wet snow to turn
around and see.

Imprinted in the tall grass behind him
are the shadows of his tracks,
claws instead of talons, the kind
that belongs to a massive bear.
And he goes by that name:
Ma kwi so ta.

And so this aegis looms against the last
spring blizzard. We discover he’s concerned
and the white feathers of his spotted hat
flicker, signaling this.

With outstretched wings he tests the sutures.
Even he is subject to physical wounds and human
tragedy, he tells us.

The eyes of the Bear-King radiate through
the thick, falling snow. He meditates on the loss
of my younger brother—and by custom
suppresses his emotions.

Like the Swift Flight

I notice it first while standing outside
looking up at the garage loft’s window:
pure verb overwhelming the noun,
or panic, rather, obscuring its author,
until the action stops and, like a gemstone
sifted from silt, the bird, a cardinal,
emerges from the motion, perched
on the wrong side of the sill.
I suppose I could make this a metaphor
or something, for the soul, maybe,
as Bede does, but it’s really just a problem,
another life to prolong so its death
isn’t my responsibility. For two days
I keep the garage door open, but the bird
trusts only the light from the window
that won’t open, not the dull fluorescence
from below or the saucer of water
and the trail of seeds I leave on the steps.
On the third day, wearing a hockey helmet
and gardening gloves, I face an old fear
and climb those steps to tape cardboard
over the window. Hunched over,
as if fending off an explosion,
I think of last summer’s jays dive-
bombing my dog’s skull, then the bat
that bit my brother in our childhood basement.
But the bird doesn’t attack, just watches
from the rafters, as I watch for hours
from our porch for the escape
I never see for sure. Here, success for once
dictated by what’s lost. I push through
our boxes of junk, the stuff we discard
but can’t throw out completely, and find
nothing to describe, just the sudden light
from the windows when the cardboard comes off,
and then the tiny marks left by something—
I suppose the evidence is there—I cared for.