The Sacred Ibis

There was a time when the Egyptians worshiped Thoth,
the god who gave them writing, wisdom, words,
their god with the head of the ibis,
all beak and no forehead.
They worshiped the ibis itself, too,
not the loud squawky hadada,
but its silent cousin, the white sacred ibis,
collected their bodies for great burials,
painted, in faith, their avian portraits over temples.
Every morning I watch a flock of sacred ibis
float across the valley behind my house,
their black curved bills, their white bodies
drawn like thin gloves
against the grey fog of those early hours.
If I were writing my halting poems
in another time, an ancient place,
I suspect I would fall on my knees
each morning at this sight,
press my forehead into the damp grass,
thanking the benevolent Thoth
for considering me worthy
of this divine visitation.

These Great Sadnesses

Our bodies have evolved
so beautifully,
those miraculous thumbs,
that swaying spine,
but how is it
that in all that
adapting,
advancing,
surviving,
I am left with
no organ to bear
the great sadness
of being human?
Grief crawls through
my veins, searching
for the place it will be
digested,
held,
converted
into some other energy,
exhaled or absorbed.
It presses at my throat,
writhes through my skull,
slides around my lungs,
leaving me voiceless
unbalanced
suffocating.
My body has failed me,
left me with no
organic capacity
for these great
sadnesses.

Of Ibises and Slugs: An Unlikely Morning Study

I feel like this blog post should come with a warning…It’s not exactly beautiful, more stomach-turning actually, though I hold out faith that there’s beauty even here. Consider yourself warned. 

I drink my coffee on the back porch
and notice with some pleasure
that a hadada ibis is walking towards me.
I have recently announced to my husband
that I no longer consider the ibises a nuisance–
their large dinosaur bodies, their loud grating call–
but a beautiful fascination.
How lucky we are, I assure him,
to have such exotic birds living
in such comfortable proximity.
So I am careful to sit still as this ibis approaches,
eager to observe its shimmering feathers,
its unlikely beak, all the details
I’ve missed at my usual distance.
I notice that its eye–as it stares at me
from the stone slabs less than a meter from my seat,
pokes its curved red and black beak into the bird bath–
is exactly the same as the earring I am wearing,
shiny black, ringed in sliver,
perfect concentric circles.
Its prehistoric feet pad gingerly down the stone,
when it finds a slug on a plant,
grasps it with its sharp beak,
and shakes it,
bits of grey slug flesh
spraying in all directions.
Somehow it manages to get some of the
creature down that long beak,
strings of slime dragging from beak to branch.
I am horrified, fascinated, admiring and disgusted.
It snatches up a piece that has fallen
and I cringe as pieces of wet grey slug body
land on the cushion beside me.
I watch as it coaxes the fat body
from the tip of that long beak
all the way down to its throat, gullet.
It reaches for another.
It has found a feast in my potted plant,
all those little creatures who didn’t know this morning
that they’d be torn from their leafy hollow.
Slug after slug, it rips them apart,
sends pieces flying.
One of the slugs is so long that
it gets wrapped around the ibis’s beak,
stuck to itself with its own slime.
I don’t know if this is a poem that I am watching unfold
or a disturbing documentary,
science and nature and life and death.
There is no glory in the way these slugs are dying,
no propriety in this meal.
What began as an ode to sliver-ringed eyes
has become a gluttonous, deathly display of biology.
The spot of red on its beak has grown brighter, richer.
but the beak is no longer smooth and graceful,
crusted now with its breakfast.
There is so much slime,
so many long strings of gastropod bodies
flailing around that my toes curl,
my stomach turns.
I cover my coffee mug with my hand to protect it
from the fleshy debris flying in its direction.
I feel all my biases rise to my mouth,
bias for small and fluttery,
against large and prehistoric.
This is not the bird feeding that I’m used to,
the delicate snap of sunflower seeds in small beaks
that I admire every morning.
I admit that my recent affection for the ibis
has not survived the move
from theoretical to concrete,
from distance to intimacy.
My love has not lasted
through breakfast.

The Housefly

There are bits of this world
I have not yet learned to love
(Let’s not speak of war
and rape and the garbage dumps
like writhing quilts spread over
fields of oceans.)
I mean even the wild citizens
of this earth, true to their
primordial calling,
who follow the vision
imprinted deep in their cells.

The simple housefly, say,
whose only harm is the tentative
way it lands on my cheek,
my ankle, while I rest
in the afternoon sun.
The feel of its pinprick
feet, tender on my skin,
draws unwarranted curses,
a childish contempt.

Dear sister fly, forgive
my petty disdain of your wise
and nimble nature.
Small harbinger of rain,
you who tread so lightly
as you weave through your
existence, I am ashamed
of my narrow, brutish love.

A Fine Beauty

Is there a finer beauty
than the morning sun
glancing off the turquoise
shimmer of the sunbird,
the dark yellow of its belly,
the perfect lines drawn by
feathers growing in careful
patterns from the recesses of
its small body?
Where do the feathers of a
sunbird acquire those startling
colours? Do they slide through
pigment arranged in tidy
sections in translucent
skin,or form in rainbow pools
gathered deep in the crevices
between avian organs?
I remember being a child at
a desk, counting out nickels,
memorizing prepositions,
but my education strikes me
as shoddy, devoid as it was
of the magical science of
tiny bird bodies
sprouting feathery
emerald
wings.

On the Feast Day of St. Francis (October 4)

Francis preached to the
birds, assumed they
understood his pious
convictions, felt enough
camaraderie with that
kingdom of creatures that
he stopped to include
them in his reverie, his
grand ideals.
What was it Francis
felt pressing in his peasant
heart that he couldn’t help
but share it with the
pigeons pecking
in the dust of Assissi’s
grey stones?
What truth have I
ever grasped that could
improve upon the
understanding of the
rufous sparrow,
watching me sidelong
from its branch,
content in its
leafy theology?

the river

i remember
grass pressed into knees
green and compliant
the empty november air
that turned our voices into water
our movements into lines
drawn across blank skies
a drunken reticle
incapable of focus.
you wrapped that peasant quilt
around us
promised it would hide us
guide us
through a labyrinth of limbs
shivering inside the watching winter
reverberating with the remembrance
of tenuous touch.
the wind
that meddling melding
alchemist of prairie
coaxed us closer
forced space into nonspace
breath into agate stone.
this was our fusing
fumbling incarnation
reincarnation of fusions
fostered centuries ago
by the smell of slate grey rivers
slowing
into
ice.

(Memories of a long ago poetry night. This poem had never yet found its way to this site…)

This Hour

If this hour
were the
only one,
the only hour
of all existence,
would it feel
like an elaborate
waste, a pointless
exercise in cells
and blood
and biology
and thought?
Or would it be
the greatest miracle
the divine mind
could conjure,
worth an eternity
of waiting for
this one brilliant
explosion of matter?
I move carefully
across the damp grass,
watch the wasp
weave through space,
feel giddy with
my body’s presence
in this beautiful,
brief experiment.

New birds have found our birdfeeder, though we don’t know why or how. Grosbeak weavers with long necks, bold white foreheads. They scare away the smaller birds, the firefinches and mannnekins that have been at home here so long. We all gather at the sliding glass door, move slowly, observe these new dynamics, these rowdy new neighbours.

J is memorizing the locations of African countries. She stands with Phil looking over the Rift Valley and points across the vastness. Over there is Rwanda. Somalia is that way. Tanzania over there. She is finding her place on this wide continent.

We carry heavy wooden chairs to the middle of the lawn, watch the immense sky over the valley turn every colour. The sun becomes a fireball, then hides behind the clouds sending rays of heaven in every direction. We point at cloud shapes, colour shades, rain falling in the distance, dust devils swirling at the other end of the valley. The girls pause their movie, come outside, exclaim and point, still willing to be amazed by this land of their childhood.

At night P wants me to stay close, to trace letters on her back, to sing lullabies. Her bed is lined with stuffed animals, she holds a small reading light. Wants “fancy hugs” and extra kisses. Tomorrow she turns six, this child who used to fit below my ribs. Today when I walked her to school, she kissed goodbye early, insisted she’d run the rest of the way herself, is making me less vital to the workings of her day.

We run to the soccer field in the dark, just before bedtime, to watch P fly her new kite. She calls, laughs, runs to the far end of the field, disappearing into the darkness. We all take turns, following her careful instructions. M wears a Moroccan scarf that sparkles in the street lights. P and J do floppy handstands on the hard earth, legs spread wide. Our cheers echo across the silent parking lot.

M and J work secretly each evening, drawing shimmering pictures with gel pens on black paper- pictures of leaves and swirls, floating hearts and hatching eggs. They are making a boardgame for their sister, yell too harshly whenever she tries to see what they’re doing, work with urgent creativity.

The girls and their friends write clever plays to perform for us, plays about witches and fairies, vegetables, and lots of dying. They stuff pillows up jackets, tie scarves around their waists, work through their biggest fears. We laugh and applaud, wish we could save them from all that dying, all those fears.

P and I walk through the forest on he birthday morning. She carries a long stick and whacks it at every tree branch she passes, cheers when leaves fall. At every two-trunked tree she stops suddenly and stands at attention, tells me her kindergarten teacher told her to always stare at two-trunked trees for two minutes. Our progress is slow. When we find the prayer labyrinth, she picks small seeds out of seed pods, arranges them in a circle on the stone cross, rubs crumbly leaves between her palms for confetti.

Reflection

In the reflection of my laptop screen I see how the skin around my mouth is collecting in small wrinkles, realize my mouth is older than it feels. It reminds me of the wrinkles around the lips of my dearest aunt, her loud Irish laugh, her magical stories. She sits in a care home now, quiet and subdued by the way life is erasing her mind, wiping away all those memories, the farmhouse and the noisy children, the hours at the typewriter and long walks down prairie roads. The last time I saw her she looked lost and worried, not sure who she should be in that crowded diner, beneath that floppy hat. But the wrinkles around her mouth remember, hold onto all those years, give testimony to all that living. I smile at my reflection, notice the way my tears catch the morning light.