That midwinter day
You could almost
Say the sandpipers ambled, hungry,
Their bright eyes cocked
Toward the minute pores glinting
In the sand—
but when the next wave broke
And spread toward them
They broke, too, sprinting
Back up the beach, break-
neck, their brittle legs flailing
Like pendulums gone mad.
They always outran the sea,
But they seemed barely to touch it, too,
To keep no distance; it was as if
They drew each wave in after them,
Not fleeing at all, and then followed it
Back as it withdrew: one motion,
Bird and water, water
And bird, serene,
Sometimes in the dead
Middle of the night when the knot
Under my sternum tightens and presses upward
As though it would part my rib cage
And hatch itself,
I place the forefinger of one hand
On the thin vein winging my other wrist
And feel beat there my father’s
Puzzled belief that a life is always edging
Toward itself, that if enough be done,
Be gotten through, today, then tomorrow a man’s
Dream of himself might settle down
Out of the distant air onto his shoulder,
Flutter its wings a little, and at last
That such success would take the place of death,
Of history, of time.
I touch my wrist: his
Goes on, it goes
On; I am unsettled, too,
By this conviction, that one day
My imagination will draw all
That it releases
Back into itself.
Sandpiper, killdeer, mourning dove, quail,
How can you fly with a salted tail?
Ask the old crow on the split rail
Rock bird, water bird, bird of woe,
What do you eat in the Spring snow?
Ask the crow
When your craw is empty, how do you sing?
Can you make shift with a cracked wing?
The crow knows everything
When you can’t manage a stiff wind
What shelter do you find?
The crow’s kind
Dry bird, broken bird, bird of gray,
How do you get through a bad day?
The crow’s way
Birds of my life,
Birds of my air, my song’s mouth,
What are your answers worth?
Give me the practical truth.
You don’t fool us with your litany
You don’t wonder what, how, why
You want to know how to die
Look in the crow’s eye.
One-a-penny, two-a-penny, they settled
Like flakes of air:
Ducks on the pond.
When Remington-Peters set my father in the blind
Once a year in the prime of the season
He never hit anything.
He never hit anything
When they set him in the field, either,
With the best dogs pointing,
The quail whirring startled
Upward from the hedges.
Aimed from the blind, or raised
His dull gun in the dull day
To the flushed covey,
the birds flew
On the blank surface of his glasses,
Like he is, here.
It’s ten o’clock in April again. It’s snowing.
Nine years ago today two killdeer courted
My first son into the world: their incredible wings
Will bend within his wrists as long as he livesood
Brothers. We are in Athens, Ohio;
Everyone’s cellar is filling with water, maybe
In celebration of my father’s grandson turning
Into his tenth year in the mixed seasons
Filling the city with spring snow, spring flood;
It seems such pressure could unmoor it
And send it floating over the Appalachians seaward
Into West Virginia; the light would fly up
Out of the pine trees, startled, flocking.
If it veered Northward
We might understand
That all along it has been a migration like this
The mourning doves wonder about out loud.
Even now they call toward the lost light.
In such a time, in April, you could almost imagine
A child standing under the pines,
Shadowed. He could lift his hand to them
And open it, releasing among their needles
An affable light, a flying instant
Which might nest in them, a birthday covenant
Of the impossible flight.