Lord God Bird

… and other possible sources of this pale blur include the pale head
markings of a pileated woodpecker, light reflecting off the bird’s back,
or video processing artifacts.
                                                            — David A. Sibley, Science, 17 March 2006


I love the Arkansas of the American mind
where, in some quantum trick in cells of the brain,
lost things flare back
for a few months only to disappear again.
The Greeks had a name for this empty frame in the Camcorder
left filming in the swamp: Aornos, meaning The birdless.

Ninety, Po marks his canvas with charcoal
taped to a length of bamboo, says he paints for the rare moment
when he is moved by someone
outside himself—ghosts, a father dead
of TB, an island of murdered friends, or here
how he draws the last Siberian tiger,
machine-gunned fifty years ago, but glimpsed
just yesterday by an American soldier—
startled from daydream—padding through the pencil & ironbark
orchids of the DMZ, the minefield.

But this orchid he roughs-in now
he dug from the peak of Huayna Picchu
& carried home on the plane in a damp paper bag.
Its flowers small & spotted as with Pollack’s brush.

In Camcorder footage, following the wing’s ventral
surface, Sibley must have, for a moment, known he was watching spirit
photographs, not the Civil War forgeries, but the real ghosts.

I would have lied too, I would have
said it was a common thing, accounted for, not the terror
of what the bird’s apparition would then have to mean.

Looking hard at the barest outline of wing,
I hear the old chaos of the songbirds
Po gave away one by one to make room for Sylvia’s memories
in their emptied cages,
Sylvia who yesterday he found asleep
beneath her sculptures—clay over chicken wire, feathers
from the birds—wearing her best jewelry & a nightgown.


Decline of the North American Songbird

Not cantata—sonata.

Whatever the first birds of spring were
the doctor, counterclockwise, 

kneaded your breast
&, discovering the mass, needled-up
a bit of blood & core, asked me
to push Print
                        a sonogram
I could imagine Beethoven,
maddened by syphilis or lead,
transcribing from reverie’s
phrasing & lull
into the language he could no longer hear
but heard.  
                  Ist es nicht schön?—
the salt acres’ echo image
the narwhal sees as the whaler’s bone-saw
migraines through his tusk—the song
mathematics & snowcrash
static, dissonance that can’t resolve,
gristle filming the halcyon sea.

Wrap the algaed tooth in a blanket
& carry it to town.
Cure for dropsy, melancholy,
strengthening the heart—
say you found the unicorn dying
in the sunlit field.                           
                             Nick the skin,
& a needle to plumb the mass
of cell & tissue. If sound
casts a shadow, the suburbs
sound like overcast sky, corpses
& the absence of corpses:
yellow throated vireo, hooded warbler
hepatic tanager, ovenbird.

To score their vanishing,
I listen to what Beethoven
hears in his teeth, the clenched
rod conducting the piano’s thrum
of C minor—chaos?
anguish?—from the soundboard
into bone, his inner ear, 
a sort of dark matter
camera he’d concocted to feel
the storm of diminished
singing he heard
                            but would never hear,
& I transpose his sonata into the key
of the ultrasound scrolling
from the printer, the gland & wrecked
bundle of cells an image
of either the black-throated
blue warbler on the wing or the rowdy
of the meadows we can hardly
even picture—either terror
or its absence. 
                         Is it not beautiful?
The sonata? No, I was wrong—
this is scored for human
voices, my father’s naked hands
sloshing fixer in his darkroom,
the image slowly coriolised into sight.


(from Here Be Monsters, University of Georgia Press)