Chickens

I come from hay and barns, raising 
chickens. In spring, lambs come. 

You got to get up, fly early, do the orphan run 
sleep till dawn, start the feeding. 

When the electricity shuts off, you boil water, you crack ice. 
You keep the animals watered. 

You walk through the barn, through the hay smell,
your hair brittle where you chopped it with scissors 

same ones you use for everything. Your sweater has holes. 
When you feed the ram lambs, you say goodbye. 

Summer, choke cherries; your mouth’s dry. Apples, cider. 
Corn picking. Canning for weeks that feel like years. 

Chopping heads off quail, rabbits, chickens. 
You can pluck a chicken, gut it fast. 

You find unformed eggs, unformed chicks. 
They start chirping day nineteen. 

You make biscuits and gravy for hundred kids 
serve them up good. You’re the chick 

who never got past day nineteen, never found your chick voice. 
You make iced tea. They say, you’re a soldier in the king’s army. 

At night, you say to yourself, Kathy, someday. 
We go walking. We go talking. We find a big story. 

A cracking egg story. A walking girl story. 
A walking out of the woods story. A not slapped silly story. 

A not Jesus story. Hush, Kathy you say, we get out of here. 
We find out where chicks go when they learn to fly.

Related Poems

What I Mean When I Say Farmhouse

             Time’s going has ebbed the moorings
to the memories that make this city-kid

             part farm-boy. Until a smell close enough to
the sweet-musk of horse tunes my ears back

             to tree frogs blossoming after a country rain.
I’m back among snakes like slugs wedged

             in ankle-high grass, back inside that small
eternity spent searching for soft ground, straining

             not to spill the water-logged heft of a drowned
barn cat carried in the shallow scoop of a shovel.

             And my brother, large on the stairs, crying.
Each shift in the winds of remembering renders me

             immediate again, like ancient valleys reignited
by more lightning. If only I could settle on

             the porch of waiting and listening,
near the big maple bent by children and heat,

             just before the sweeping threat of summer
thunderstorms. We have our places for

             loneliness—that loaded asking of the body.
my mother stands beside the kitchen window, her hands

             no longer in constant motion. And my father
walks along the tired fence, watching horses

             and clouds roll down against the dying light—
I know he wants to become one or the other.

             I want to jar the tenderness of seasons,
to crawl deep into the moment. I’ve come

             to write less fear into the boy running
through the half-dark. I’ve come for the boy.


The Two Horses (A Memory)

You said you had lunch in Pittsfield, was it on North Street?

That reminds me of when we lived on the farm.

It must be eighty years ago.

We went to a one-room schoolhouse, didn’t you drive past it once?

Each row was a different grade.

I sat in the first seat of the first row.

The teacher’s name was Miss Brown.

She was so pretty.

I wonder if she’s still alive.

The day before we left the farm our cat disappeared.

We couldn’t find her anywhere.

I was sad for weeks.

Three months later she showed up at our new house in Pittsfield.

Robbins Avenue.

I can’t think of the number now.

My sister was in New York.

She didn’t like the people she was living with so she’d visit us.

She fell in love with the young man who lived next door.

Maurice.

Your uncle Maurice.

They got married and moved to Cleveland.

They’re both gone now, aren’t they?

You know, I can’t picture her.

A few years later we moved to New York.

This just jumped into my mind: I must have been three years old.

We were still in Russia.

Mir.

A small town, but famous for its yeshiva.

My oldest brother—Joe—took our horses down to the river.

They were the two best horses in the town.

My father had a phaeton.

A beautiful old buggy.

He was like a taxi driver, he took people to Minsk.

Or Vilna.

That day he was at the station.

The passenger station, waiting for customers.

My brother was still just a kid.

He must have been washing the horses in the river.

I can remember—it was a hot day.

Maybe he was giving them a drink.

And while I was watching the reins got caught around a pole in the river.

The horses kept twisting the reins around that pole.

It was slippery, the reins kept sliding down under the water and they were pulling the horses down with them.

I ran into town and got my father who came running back with a knife in his teeth.

He jumped into the river with all his clothes on.

He took the knife and sawed away at the reins until he finally cut through.

He saved the horses.

I haven’t thought about this in a thousand years.

It’s like a dream: you get up it’s forgotten.

Then it all comes back.

Didn’t I ever tell you?

Look at me, I’m starting to cry.

What’s there to cry about?

Such an old, old memory, why should it make me cry?

Fern Hill

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
     The night above the dingle starry,
          Time let me hail and climb
     Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
          Trail with daisies and barley
     Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
     In the sun that is young once only,
          Time let me play and be
     Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
          And the sabbath rang slowly
     In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
     And playing, lovely and watery
          And fire green as grass.
     And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
     Flying with the ricks, and the horses
          Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
     Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
          The sky gathered again
     And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
     Out of the whinnying green stable
          On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
     In the sun born over and over,
          I ran my heedless ways,
     My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
     Before the children green and golden
          Follow him out of grace,

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
     In the moon that is always rising,
          Nor that riding to sleep
     I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
          Time held me green and dying
     Though I sang in my chains like the sea.