My Son Asks for the Story About When We Were Birds

Joe Wilkins

When we were birds,
we veered & wheeled, we flapped & looped—

it's true, we flew. When we were birds,
we dined on tiny silver fish
& the watery hearts
of flowers. When we were birds

we sistered the dragonfly,
brothered the night-wise bat,

& sometimes when we were birds

we rose as high as we could go—
light cold & strange—

& when we opened our beaked mouths
sundown poured like wine
down our throats.

When we were birds
we worshipped trees, rivers, mountains,

sage knots, rain, gizzard rocks, grub-shot dung piles,

& like all good beasts & wise green things
the mothering sun. We had many gods
when we were birds,

& each in her own way
was good to us, even winter fog,

which found us huddling
in salal or silk tassel,
singing low, sweet songs & closing
our blood-rich eyes & sleeping
the troubled sleep of birds. Yes,

even when we were birds
we were sometimes troubled & tired,

sad for no reason, 

& so pretended we were not birds
& fell like stones—

the earth hurtling up to meet us,
our trussed bones readying
to be shattered, our unusually large hearts
pounding for nothing—

yet at the last minute we would flap
& lift, & as we flew, shudderingly away,

we told ourselves that this falling—

we would remember. We thought
we would always
be birds. We didn't know.

We didn't know
we could love one another

with such ferocity. That we should.

More by Joe Wilkins

Nothing to Do with Us, or Poem against the Crumbling of the Republic

Old friend,
are we there yet? 

You sat with me once,
outside a dirty burger joint,
a hard light at the windows.

It was just about
the ass crack of the afternoon,

mountains in the distance,

& I’d played a trick on you,
or you’d played a trick on me,

& the highway
was a home to comings & goings,
nothing to do with us.

We had hours yet to drive.

Old friend,
how long should we sit here,
breathing dust & gasoline,

watching clouds gut themselves
on the pines?

Just Anybody, or Poem against the Crumbling of the Republic

Old friend,
stuck in that small town,
we tried every way we could
to kill ourselves. 
 
That night down on the river,
that night I lost you?
 
That was a stupid night.
 
I think about it all the time.
 
We’d already sunk the front wheels
of your three-on-the-tree Impala
in the cow shit & mud.
 
Around the fire
I didn’t know half the faces.
 
You gnashed a palmful of pills.
You took off your shirt.
 
I didn’t want to ride with just anybody.
 
Old friend,
where did you go? I circled the flames,
banged on every back window.
 
Later, swaying at the water’s edge,
I started tossing rocks,
winging them hard.
 
I was hoping in the dark
I’d hit you.

Then I Packed You Up the Ridge Like a Brother on My Back

In the blue dark I followed the ridge
toward the pines.

In a bowl of sage and dry grass
soft as the throat-hairs

of something small,
I lay down.

The sun was a long time coming,
the earth bloodless at my belly.

I waited and watched the river.
I was very still. You know how it is—

the stars closing their bright mouths,
the dew a gift on your lips.    

You did not see me,
or my rifle,

blue as the dark. I saw you
step from the willows,

give your nose to the black water.
And you were beautiful. There is so much

blood in a thing—
yours welled up from the clean hole

I made in your heart and steamed
on the river stones,

and some washed down into the river,
where it swirled a moment,

and became the breath of fish.