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MacQueen’s Quinterly: Knock-your-socks-off Art and Literature
Issue 3: May 2020
Poem: 875 words
By Charles D. Tarlton


birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know

—e.e. cummings


What early birds in spring meant
to us, exactly, was unlikely
what they intended. 
		    We see them as if painted
Audubon birds on glass, each separately
arranged to make dimensions visible,

and (still) the birds were against us.

At first, we thought they were part of our same world
(or we were, of theirs)
			and that they were “singing,” 
(we said)
	  when they were really threatening 
other birds to stay away!

Once, in the woods in northern California, I saw myself reflected in the smooth mica underside of a tiny rock pulled up from a stream. Behind me I saw the sky with clouds and a blue jay on a rock raging in bird talk. I knew something then—I still know it now.

	the way we got here told in fragments 
	of overlapping lives, and a history remembered 
	to replicate the fractured reach 
	of each document, the tattered edge of another
	what thoughts, evaluations mixed
	at first, they so loved the older poets 
	the ones still speaking in strong accents
	broadly British, though from Connecticut
	but once new ones came along, they 
	craved a broken-up line, scattered random
	words and slang. So what was famous
	in their mother’s textbook, 
				    “Swinburne,” say
	or “Matthew Arnold,” found only footnotes
	we later meditated on the suicidal—
	John Berryman
	Sylvia Plath
	Hart Crane
	Anne Sexton 
	were we expecting them to slam?! 
A measure that’s given
as fundamental 
		(istorie to begin with meant
an account given of a person’s life).

On a perfect spring morning I stood with my coffee at the big kitchen window just looking out at the yard’s new grass and daffodils. At the far end of the yard a mocking bird sat on the top of the kid’s swing set. At first, he seemed to be looking right at me, but then suddenly he lifted off the bar, dipped first low toward the grass, and then recovering his altitude and speed, he raced across the yard and crashed dead into the window in front of me.

Oh, that’s so revealing! 

	so, if I philosophize a world as being 
	states of knowing such that each perception 

	a separate world, jammed amongst
	other impenetrable worlds, like
	mine, yours, or  someone else’s 

This, then, is MY world! Not the bird’s!


I sense sometimes a deeper 
self (in dreamy mists
between wake and sleep)

who was a small, soft, powder-blue ball.

	Bird History
	doves cooing, swallows 
	sketching adventitious 
	aerial mysteries in the evening
	air, paired cormorants fishing 
	side by side, the waves’ rhythmic 
	shush or a Costa’s hummingbird  
	darting, then the wounded 
	sparrow circling in the grass 
	on a single broken wing
	(but, in Italy they sell dead larks 
	tied on strings to eat, or in cages 
	as Judas goats, alive for luring victims)
	while some birds oddly flit and flop
	their hip-hop dance
	to temp predators away.

Ought we enlist them, listen then? Pretend we can speak bird talk?

A storm that came through here all day and rained walls of rain against the house and a wind blew hard, and the lights flickered once or twice, and all of it a roar; but now the seagulls glide in the lingering onshore breeze and the surface of the sound is barely rippled all the way out to the black freighter with the white superstructure that’s ever so slowly inching out to sea.

On a hard black night and cloudless
there were the stars,
		      nearly all of them.
A thickly brightness showing through frames 
woven of branches
		  and branchlets of winter,
maples, wiry and spidery 

One last brown autumn
		      leaf was blown
across a knoll of withered grass
on the wind’s insistence, hopping,
and I thought it was a bird.


Bird memories, the first I ever saw of
rook clouds in Ireland nesting
in the tall trees waving in the wind,
									the nests wild
the birds and with branches, weaving the nests
feeding the fledglings
			and the sky speckled black 
with birds.

The extent of one’s plain consciousness 
measures a world
		 not the less true for being 
merely one.
	    So the words are stuck
to the page.

	they wave their arms around
	dance up and down
	as if we are supposed to know
	somehow it means something

What do we imagine what words like this
are supposed to do,
		    but carry some vibration
(as in a 17th century aviary
			     of glass 
and wire filigree)
		   from where it has barely 
wiggled over to where we are
			     trembling, thinking,
about to lift up from the branch.

	rhizomes, wandering  
	stretching roots of words, 
	scratched or painted
	muted words, 
	reaching without reflection.

In St. Bernard’s school the girls braided paper messages like bows into their hair (they called them mourning doves), one for every venial sin they would commit that day. Some of the girls wove in extras in anticipation.

Whisper the gossip (secret love) 
breathed to the kid behind you,

cuckoo, cuckoo

and behind that to the next one
and to the next and the next
			     until the message

cuckoo, cuckoo 

arrives at last to the last one, 
and she reads out 

Who gets the last word, anyway?

Publisher’s Note:

Epigraph is from “may my heart always be open to little” by e.e. cummings (1894–1962), in E.E. Cummings: Complete Poems 1904–1962 edited by George J. Firmage (Liveright, 2016).

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